MANCHESTER, NH—Rumors are swirling among Beltway insiders that the Patterson family vacation last weekend to New Hampshire, site of the first presidential primary, was, in fact, an attempt by the Michigan family of four to test the waters for a 2008 presidential run.
The Pattersons reportedly spent most of their three-day stay in the Granite State—known for its ability to make or break a candidate—interacting with locals, visiting key landmarks, and, according to political observers, using the outing to showcase their message of strong family values. They were seen taking a guided tour of a maple-sugar house in Barrington as well as stopping for countless photo opportunities outside government buildings in Concord and at other sites around the state.
"No one knew they were planning to throw their hat in the ring," Boston Globe columnist Scott Lehigh said. "They've obviously been planning this trip for months, maybe even as long as a year. They managed to squeeze countless side trips into an almost impossibly tight schedule, including a skiing outing at Pats Peak to their stop and a stop at the Hannah Duston monument in Penacook."
Pundits said the family's slow drive through Bear Brook State Park signaled a deep concern for environmental issues, while their decision to attend Sunday services at the New Castle Congregational Church acted as a nod to the country's important bloc of religious voters. The Pattersons also strolled the shopping districts of wealthy Portsmouth, showing their ability to relate to a cross-section of Americans.
"They looked very presidential," Lehigh said.
Phil Patterson, appearing relaxed but dignified in a black jacket, gray slacks, and open-collar white shirt, made sure to carry the items he purchased from a local Nashua antiquary himself, smiling broadly during several trips back and forth to his minivan. When asked by locals why the family was in town, Patterson downplayed the visit, saying that he was just introducing his children to the "great state of New Hampshire."
"A lot of nice folks around here," Janice Patterson said, shaking hands with Beefside Family Restaurant owner Jim Day after a meal the family called "really good." According to Day, they left a very generous tip and told him their waitress "couldn't have been friendlier."
"They were just really down to earth," Day said.
Despite the growing buzz about their candidacy, some, such as CNN political analyst Bill Schneider, say the family's lack of political experience is a setback. Phil, 49, is a pediatrician; Janice, 47, a homemaker, graduated from the University of Connecticut with a history degree; and Wesley, 19, and Phil Jr., 17, have been widely criticized for their youth. Likewise, the family has yet to form an exploratory committee, and, almost all observers agree that, with a combined annual income of less than $70,000, they are already at a serious fund-raising disadvantage. They were also roundly chided by the media after a major misstep in which Phil Jr. referred to the historic Shaker Village in Canterbury as "sucky."
"The Pattersons have an uphill climb, that's for sure," said political analyst George Stephanopoulos on his ABC program This Week. "But this New Hampshire trip vaults them onto the national stage, sending the message that they are serious about '08. All that's left now is the paperwork."
"Honestly, who in their right mind would visit the Audubon Society of New Hampshire if they weren't running for office?" he added.
Experts are already debating how the Pattersons stack up against early front-runners John McCain, Barack Obama, and Hillary Clinton. All agree that it will depend on how New Hampshirites respond to their visit.
"The Pattersons are masterful at crafting the image of the everyday middle-class family," Washington Post reporter Dan Balz said. "They are likeable, and that will often resonate with voters more than experience."
Added Balz: "But the American people should start asking themselves what a Patterson family presidency would mean for this country."
Sources close to the family say the family will soon visit Janice Patterson's aging mother in Iowa—home to the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus—where many are predicting the family will formally announce their candidacy.
"She's very ill," Mrs. Patterson said of her mother and the carefully planned trip. "I don't think she'll be with us much longer."