SALEM, New Hampshire — At Margarita’s Restaurant on Thursday morning, few people seemed to care much that George Pataki had embarked on his latest round of campaigning in their midst.
Twenty people showed up for a roundtable ready to listen to the 70-year-old former New York governor, who is struggling to crack one percent in the polls.
Scrambling to make the room appear more full, volunteers clumsily arranged the Mexican restaurant’s cumbersome wooden chairs to fill the space around the governor’s seat, just moments before his late morning arrival.
“It really looks like he has leprosy. I don’t want it to look like we think he has cooties or anything,” one luncheon organizer whispered to her friend, while she busily moved her place setting next to the seat saved for the governor.
Given his persistently low standing in the field, Pataki has played out this scene over and over again since he announced his candidacy in late May. New Hampshire is the place longshot candidates go to try and change their fortunes, waiting to see whether the paltry crowds one day will grow bigger the next. If they’re going to catch on anywhere in an early-voting state, it’s probably going to be New Hampshire, the original retail politics state.
“I think it’s the summer of reality theater politics, but as we get closer to February, people are going to want someone who can actually lead the government,” Pataki said. “And hopefully they’ll turn to me.”
Over the course of three events, Pataki smiled through his stump speech, continuing to blast former ally Donald Trump and his “ridiculous” deportation plan. Speaking to a combined total of 50 people, Pataki touted his record as a three-term governor of New York, spoke of his ability to work across the aisle and promised to ban anyone who has held office from serving as a lobbyist.
He answered every question (sometimes two from the same person), posed for photographs, signed notebooks, shook hands with everyone — including one baby. He thanked voters repeatedly for the “great” turnout.
“As they say of the New York lottery, you’ve got to be in it to win it, so lightning can strike, but it can only strike if you’re out in the field,” said John Kenny, the publisher of the New York political site NYTrue, who was one of only two reporters at the Manchester farmers’ market following Pataki around New Hampshire on Thursday afternoon.
In a political moment that rewards flash and money, few give the underfunded and mild-mannered Pataki any chance of winning the presidential race. Even his most memorable calling card — presiding over New York during the 9/11 attacks — happened over a decade ago, and even then, he was overshadowed by then-Mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani.
But Pataki has always started from the bottom. It may be that his hope for a wave in New Hampshire has its origins in the Republican wave he caught in 1994. Discontent with Democrats sent Congress into GOP hands for the first time in 40 years, and Republicans – including Pataki -won 12 of the nation’s state houses. Still, Republicans and Democrats alike were surprised the little-known state senator from Westchester was able to knock off one of the country’s best-known politicians, Mario Cuomo. His underdog campaign got another boost when he was endorsed by New York Sen. Al D’Amato.
“Beating Mario Cuomo was a big deal,” Kenny said. “Everyone thought Cuomo was invincible and they were hard pressed to find a legitimate challenger. Al D’Amato went through his address book and was like, what about George?”
But last week, Pataki suffered a disappointment when D’Amato endorsed Ohio Gov. John Kasich in the presidential race.
“I’m not surprised – he’s done many things politically like endorse Democratic candidate for governor that I didn’t agree with. But politics is politics,” Pataki said, with a strained smile on his face.
With no security entourage, Pataki often goes unrecognized as he walks through the streets of New Hampshire. But as the 6-foot-5 New York farmer wandered through the Manchester farmer’s market on Thursday, buying peaches for his small staff and a couple of reporters, he turned a few heads.
At the Common Earth Farms stand, Gail Prince, a New Hampshire farmer, was waiting to show off the fruits of her labor.
“I was so happy to see that you jumped into the race, ” Prince told the governor before placing a tomatillo in his empty hand.
Pataki smiled with delight as he chewed the mini albino tomatoes, gripping a dripping peach pit in his other hand.
“We call this the OMG — not the GMO – tomatoes. Do you want to try an OMG tomato?,” Prince asked his staffers.
If there were any signs of frustration with his standing in the polls, Pataki never let on.
“I love retail politics,” he said. “This is great fun. I’ve always gotten energy from people, politics, campaigns. To me, it’s like playing basketball – I just love it.”