As Mitt Romney Arrives in New Hampshire, We Are Joining the Local Conversation

EXETER, N.H. -- Locals claim the Republican Party was founded here, and of course New Hampshire is home to the first presidential primary. So it makes sense that Mitt Romney -- who does everything by the book, God bless him -- chose a farm near here for the launch of his 2012 campaign on Thursday.

Given the local history (the GOP supposedly held its first meeting here in secret on October 12, 1853) it's incumbent upon Romney, or someone, to explain convincingly what his party stands for besides the word "NO!" shouted at the rising tide of change.

In this state, which is busy cutting its budget to the bone, health care amounts to 40 percent of the annual budget and education a large chunk of the rest. So the question here, and everywhere, is: How do you run a decent society that doesn't go bankrupt? The Republican answer -- if they can come up with one -- may well emerge from the debates and votes in this old state.

As usual, New Hampshire has an outsized number of seats in the audience of democracy. The winner of the primary here doesn't always become his or her party's candidate, let alone president. And everyone is always grousing about how and why a rural state full of white folks has acquired so much power in the process. But the winner here is propelled on a rocket of free media.

As far as I'm concerned, New Hampshire's role is a happy accident, at least on the Republican side. Conservatives here are old school. They tend NOT to be warmongers, religious fanatics or xenophobes. (Indeed, there aren't enough xenos for them to be phobes about.)

They tend to be close-with-a-dollar Yankees (any ethnicity can be a Yankee, by the way, if they have lived in New Hampshire long enough) who want to be left alone to ski or go to the lake or the coast and who distrust the Powers That Be in faraway places such as New York, Washington and, especially, Boston.

Yes, I know: New Hampshirites in the Southern Tier commute to the Hub, and they root for Boston sports teams. But once these voters buy a home in the Granite State everything changes. They love the lack of an income tax. They generally applaud a state government that is pursuing such massive budget cuts that, if applied by Congress to national spending, would cause a firecracker chain of heart attacks in marble corridors.

And yet they believe in community here -- fiercely -- as long as it is their own. They care passionately about education, the environment and health care. It's an odd mixture of parsimony and compassion, but it is, or used to be, very much in the American grain.

And that mix is what the GOP has to figure out, and what GOP voters here want them to figure out. It is an equation that Mitt Romney and his fellow GOP travelers so far CAN'T figure out.

We at the AOL Huffington Post Media Group want to report intensively on this conversation, and allow and encourage our readers to be part of it. And that, in addition to covering Mitt, is why I am here.

This week we are launching a pioneering (some might call it quixotic) experiment in presidential campaign coverage, an attempt by a national media company to cover the campaign literally from the ground up, with local reporters who really are local.

At 3 p.m. Wednesday, at the Exeter Inn, just down the street from the place where the GOP first met, we launched the Exeter site of Later in the day we debuted in Portsmouth and Hampton. Seven more New Hampshire sites will soon follow.

At the same, we are launching bunches of Patch sites in Iowa and South Carolina, two other crucial states in the early presidential process. And we are expanding our commitment in the 19 other states in which Patch operates, including such "swing" states as Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Michigan, Illinois and Virginia. sites are committed to covering towns and neighborhoods from the ground up. The local editors -- Jason Claffey, 26, is our man in Exeter, and regional editor Marc Fortier, who went to high school in Exeter -- will focus on the corpuscles of the body politic: school boards, local councils, town police and fire officials, local businesses and entrepreneurs, and charitable and religious organizations that comprise the heart of daily life.

And by doing so, Jason and Marc will through local reporting learn to see the campaign from the vantage point of the people who matter: not the candidates and not the handlers and certainly not the drop-by national reporters and pundits such as the one writing this blog, but the voters.

Trends the Patch reporters see, the events they see, can reach a wider audience on The Huffington Post if the editors in New York pick them up. But the main Patch audiences are the readers in Exeter, Portsmouth, Hampton and elsewhere, who are the real reason for -- and the real power in -- the ongoing experiment of America.