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Welcome to Milford: Town's View of 2008 Race

Milford residents try to persuade last-minute voters during recent local elections.
Melissa Block, NPR
Milford residents try to persuade last-minute voters during recent local elections.
Republican Tim O'Connell, a state representative, and his wife Noreen, who serves on Milford's school board, say it's possible that New Hampshire may hold its primaries in 2007.
Melissa Block, NPR /
Republican Tim O'Connell, a state representative, and his wife Noreen, who serves on Milford's school board, say it's possible that New Hampshire may hold its primaries in 2007.

Throughout the presidential primary campaign season, All Things Considered will be focusing its attention on one town in New Hampshire, the state that historically has held the country's first primary.

We'll be visiting Milford from time to time as the campaign evolves, to hear what's on voters' minds and how they're appraising the candidates.

In many ways, Milford is emblematic of New Hampshire: It traditionally votes Republican, but has many independent voters, or "undeclared voters," as they're called in New Hampshire. Milford voted for George W. Bush in the general election in 2004 and 2000; it went for Bill Clinton in 1996 and for George H.W. Bush in 1992.

The town's population is about 15,000 today, compared with about 4,000 people in 1950. Like many towns and cities in the southern part of New Hampshire, it is attracting many newcomers from Massachusetts and elsewhere, which might make the town tilt a bit more Democratic than it has in the past.

Milford is known as "The Granite Town" in the Granite State, though nearly all the local granite quarries are closed now. It got its name from the many mills that used to operate along the Souhegan River that runs through town; those mills are gone now, too.

The town's center is the Oval, which is ringed by businesses: cafes, barbershops, a gift shop, Army-Navy store, frame shop. Many a presidential candidate has walked through the Oval, shaking hands with locals, pausing for a photo op by the gazebo.

People in Milford talk with affection about its small-town feel. Karen Roberts Walker, who owns Karen's Kollectibles on the Oval, puts it this way: "You get to know people by their first name. Our customers become our friends. The local policeman comes walking around at night to check your doorknob of your business — you only see that in Mayberry RFD!"

Go to Milford, and every hour, you'll hear the ringing of a bell that was cast by Paul Revere in 1802. It is in the clock tower on town hall, located on the Oval.

Presidential candidates who visit Milford often take a walk through the Oval and get lunch at the River House Café.

Charles Burke runs the diner's tiny kitchen, and he feeds the parade that tromps through his door every four years.

"It's a carnival atmosphere. And it is lots of fun meeting people that truly, you know, in three months could care less about you and have totally forgotten about you," Burke says. "For some reason, we are blessed — or cursed — with the primary in New Hampshire, and that's our fate."

Presidential hopefuls have already begun visiting the town: John McCain made a stop on March 17. But many people think it is still too soon.

Republican Tim O'Connell, a state representative, says he thinks it is at least six months, if not a year, too early for the current level of intensity and activity.

With other states moving their primaries up earlier, O'Connell and his wife Noreen — a member of the town's board of selectmen — expect that New Hampshire will respond by leapfrogging earlier still. That potentially means a primary in 2007.

"It's by law. We will have our primary first," O'Connell says, joking that it might happen on Thanksgiving. He also notes that there is speculation that the primary could happen in December, depending on what other states do, and the town is preparing for that possibility.

Even so, the upcoming primary feels very far away for most people in Milford. Most aren't focused on the candidates yet. Some have trouble remembering just who is running.

For now, residents are more focused on local issues. Hot topics at a recent local election included divisive races for the board of selectmen, and whether to build an outdoor track for the high school and a building with facilities for maintenance workers at the cemetery. The citizenry's focus will likely begin to change, though, as campaigning for the 2008 presidential primaries gears up.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

As special correspondent and guest host of NPR's news programs, Melissa Block brings her signature combination of warmth and incisive reporting. Her work over the decades has earned her journalism's highest honors, and has made her one of NPR's most familiar and beloved voices.