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Eating With the Presidential Candidates

Tuesday, February 2, 2016  
Posted by: Emily Owens
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What do you do when a borderline hostile crowd is trying to drown out your prepared speech? Try diverting their attention by talking about yummy chicken tenders.

That strategy temporarily worked for Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, when she addressed thousands of New Hampshire party activists last fall at Manchester’s Verizon Center. The Florida congresswoman’s talk was interrupted several times by loud chants of “More debates!” as supporters of presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley accused her of rigging the system to benefit the more-famous Hillary Clinton.

“I’ve always been impressed by what makes New Hampshire voters unique and by your high expectations,” Wasserman Schultz pandered. “The way you open up your living rooms and hear the candidates out. The way you sit in a diner booth over a cup of coffee and have a real conversation. The way you share with them your greatest hopes and your deepest concerns — while eating some of the best chicken tenders in the country!”

Executive Councilor Chris Pappas, owner of the Puritan Backroom restaurant in Manchester, later took the stage and acknowledged the compliment. “I heard someone before talk chicken tenders,” he said coyly. “We have great ice cream too.” Then he transitioned to his prepared remarks about health care and gay marriage.

How odd is it for a restaurant to get product placement in a political speech? Pappas, whose great-grandfather Charlie founded the Backroom in 1917, says he’s flattered.

“We enjoy being a well-known spot on the campaign trail,” he says. “We sell thousands of pounds a week of those tenders. John McCain came in one time, grabbed one off someone’s plate and ate it!”

Celebrating its 100th anniversary this year (just one year older than the Puritan Backroom), the New Hampshire primary is famous for its retail politicking: face-to-face campaigning that counterbalances large-scale events in auditoriums and even stadiums. Advocates for preserving the state’s first-in-the-nation voting status argue that New Hampshire proves that handshakes still matter in a world increasingly dominated by Facebook likes and YouTube clicks.

Cynics will argue that everything in politics is carefully staged, especially meet-and-greets at coffee shops and diners where politicians can mingle with “average Americans.” While it’s true that campaigns can stack events with friendly supporters and softball questions, unscripted moments do happen every day with the candidates.

“It’s organic. It’s legitimate,” says “Campaign Carl” Cameron, Fox News Channel’s chief political correspondent and formerly WMUR-TV’s political director. “In diners, you tend to get questions that the candidates are not accustomed to hearing and are often unique to one person’s experience. It makes a profound difference.”

“We’ve seen candidates lose their temper or be flummoxed in a situation. Retail politics provides a stage. And it’s not the debate stage where everyone has makeup, lighting and a green room. It’s about as spontaneous, unplanned and uncontrollable as it possibly can be,” he adds. “The one thing that candidates fear most is the uncertainty of an unscripted question from a real voter.” Read more from

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