Presidential candidates love the Merrimack restaurant in Manchester, N.H., because it is centrally located and just a few paces from the hotel where they often stay—or at least where the reporters who cover them often stay. I’ve been to the Merrimack a few dozen times since my first visit in 1995, but never to eat. I’ve been in the pack of reporters following the candidate as he shakes sticky syrup hands and jokes about the breakfast he’s interrupted. To commemorate the restaurant’s role in the first-in-the-nation primary process, the exterior sports a recently painted mural of Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, and others. The caricature of Steve Forbes is smiling so violently, it’s going to cause a traffic accident.
While covering the Republican and Democratic debates last week, I thought I might have a shot at eating a late breakfast at the Merrimack candidate-free. John Cox, the Republican superlongshot, has an office above the restaurant, but I knew he was away, trying to wangle his way into the Republican debate. So, I knew I wouldn’t run into him. I thought I was in the clear. I sprinted toward the door, then slowed down briefly to pull the handle. “Are you a reporter?” asked a man standing on the sidewalk. He was typing on a laptop he’d perched on one of the newspaper machines. Busted.
His name was Robert Haines, and he was running for the GOP nomination. He’d been shaking hands on the corner since early in the morning. “I usually get the first spot,” he said, pointing to his maroon Mazda 626. In the window was a small laminated sign that read, “Robert Haines for President.” He explained his parking strategy. “In the first spot people can see the side of your car from the road. These other candidates wouldn’t know something like this, but I know the ins and outs. I know what it takes. I’ve been running here since 1992.” Haines once lived in Denver but moved to New Hampshire with his family so that he could get pole position.
Sixty years old with slightly graying hair, Haines wore a white polo shirt with an American flag logo and a Texas Ranger belt buckle. “Did you know I was one of the people who saved Hillary Clinton’s husband?” he asked after we shook hands. He explained that he was one of the three men who helped subdue Francisco Martin Duran when he opened fire on the White House in 1994. (His press release notes that moments before the shooting “Mr. Haines was trying to get the gunman’s vote.”) Haines assisted the man who tackled Duran. “If somebody opened fire right now, I’d go after them in a heartbeat. OK?” he told the Dartmouth Review. “It’s instinctive. But I’ll also give you a quote from the Bible. It goes something like this: ‘No greater love hath a man, than to lay down his life for his fellow man.’ OK? So, I care.”
Haines didn’t “want to get into” what he does when he’s not running for president but stressed that he has a master’s degree in applied solar energy and other educational qualifications that made him an expert on energy issues. A social and fiscal conservative, he opposes amnesty and—surprise—favors a strong national defense. He objects to all presidents named George Bush. He even ran against the current president in the 2004 Republican primaries, when most of us in the media thought Bush ran unopposed. “I came in fifth in the 2004 New Hampshire primary,” he said, taking off his sunglasses to wipe them. (He got 579 votes. I looked it up.) “These other candidates didn’t have the guts to run. You follow me?” He finished a lot of sentences with this question.
I asked Haines about the other dozen or so Republican candidates. “They ain’t the only game in town, to use a colloquialism,” he said. But how would he break through the clutter? “I’ve got the power of the Internet,” he said triumphantly. I noted that was Fred Thompson’s strategy, too. He was undeterred: “There’s more than one way to skin a cat, to use another colloquialism. You follow me?” I asked if he had a Web page. “Not as such,” he said, but referred me to articles that would come up if I did a Google search. (A search of the Web is not uniformly positive for Haines. It reveals an arrest for pointing a loaded rifle and wearing a bulletproof vest on the streets of Manchester.)
After our chat, I finally went inside to the lunch counter. Through the window, I watched Haines stop a few voters and chat them up. After my eggs and pancakes, I spoke with him again briefly in the sunshine. Mr. Haines, I said, what do you say to those who point out that you haven’t got a chance? “A winner never quits and a quitter never wins,” he said. “I don’t care whether I win or not. I’m in it. I’m not going to drop out even after Super Tuesday. You follow me?” As we walked down the street—I was, in fact, at this point following him—I headed off to a bookstore, and he ducked into a local package store to retrieve his laptop. They let him recharge it there and use the facilities. He even has a key to the store, and he uses it as a home base for his corner campaign. “See, I know the ins and outs. I know what’s going on. You follow me?” As he disappeared into the store, he flashed me a thumbs up.