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Running for '96 in the Granite State.

One of the country's most influential television stations is located in the remote, bucolic foothills of southern New Hampshire.

Every four years the state is the site of the first presidential primary election. That contest sets the tone for the presidential race by creating public perceptions about candidates and determining front-runners.

Anyone running for president must spend a lot of time in New Hampshire--and appear on Manchester's WMUR, the only network affiliate in the state. Because of its strong signal and the fact that it's carried on cable systems, it reaches an estimated 60 percent of the state's eligible voters.

Although the next presidential campaign is still three years away, potential candidates have descended on New Hampshire without let-up since last November's election. "We thought we'd get a year break from the '92 primary," says WMUR News Director Jack Heath. "Now it's going on the year round."

Republicans testing the state's temperature in recent months include Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole and former Bush cabinet secretaries Dick Cheney, Lynn Martin, Jack Kemp and Lamar Alexander. President Clinton also has visited.

"What has made WMUR more prominent than ever is that the president has gone into New Hampshire outside the campaign cycle," says Jeff Eller, director of media affairs for the White House. "Reagan and Bush never went there except every four years."

Clinton's visit in May became a political embarrassment after it was disclosed that a young presidential aide had asked WMUR anchor Nanette Hansen to apply makeup on the president's face before interviewing him. The White House later apologized.

The ABC affiliate's political clout is now so strong that it is challenging the once unassailable power of the state's largest newspaper, the Manchester Union Leader. For decades, the paper, published by the late William Loeb, intimidated politicians with its ultra-conservative views and scathing editorials.

The paper has toned down in recent years under the editorship of Joseph McQuaid. With a daily circulation of 69,000, it still dominates the state's print media. But its ability to define what's news has been undercut by WMUR, whose daily cumulative audience is 220,000 state households.

"[Channel] 9 has been an antidote to the Union Leader," says Manchester attorney John Broderick, a Democrat who co-chaired Clinton's 1992 New Hampshire campaign. "It has not quite reached the point of setting the agenda. But it has leveled the playing field and given access to a lot of people who couldn't get past the Union Leader."

Broderick believes WMUR's Sunday half-hour interview show, "Close-Up New Hampshire," was crucial last year to the election of Republican Gov. Stephen Merrill, his former law partner. Steve's appearances on |Close-Up' gave him credibility and a way to talk to voters," says Broderick.

WMUR's emergence as a political power has surprised many longtime New Hampshire residents like Broderick. Less than 10 years ago, the station was regarded as a joke. Manchester viewers preferred watching the nearby Boston stations. They laughed at WMUR's newscasts and especially "Uncle Gus" Bernier, the station's major personality who did the weather and hosted a children's show. The station was housed in a decaying Victorian mansion nicknamed "Nightmare on Elm Street" and bats often flew around the control room.

In 1982, the station was purchased by Birney Imes, owner of a small station in Mississippi. A new general manager and news director began to make changes. The news department quadrupled its staff, modernized equipment, added more newscasts and public affairs shows, and made a commitment to cover politics seriously. By 1988, the station had moved into new, upscale quarters in a refurbished textile mill and presidential candidates were eagerly stopping by.

The 1992 New Hampshire presidential campaign was the watershed. Instead of focusing on Boston stations--as they had done in previous years--candidates made WMUR a priority. They competed for exposure on newscasts and spent heavily to buy air time for commercials.

Nowadays, WMUR also is being watched in Boston, where it is carried on some cable systems.

"They really do a good job covering New Hampshire," says Candy Altman, news director at the dominant Boston station, WCVB. "Because we're also an ABC affiliate we're a competitor in a peripheral way. But we also share video and we respect what they're doing, although I have a philosophic question about giving all that air time to the presidential candidates parading through the station."

"My people ask tough questions and we're nobody's patsy," says Jack Heath, 33, who was a reporter at WCVB before joining WMUR as the political reporter in late 1990 and jumping to news director a year later. "We're lean, mean and efficient--and we're doing it right."
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Author:Prato, Lou
Publication:American Journalism Review
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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