Hillary Clinton is energetic and engaging. Marco Rubio is very smart, but not yet ready to be president. Donald Trump is also smart, and dangerous.
That’s not me talking. It’s Don O’Day.
And he has better personal insights into all those candidates than anyone else in Westport.
O’Day — former chair of the Board of Education, and a self-described “Joe Lieberman of the Westport Democratic party” (he supported Jim Marpe for 1st selectman) — just returned from several days in New Hampshire.
He heads north every 4 years, to take a first-hand look at the men and women who — at this early stage of the presidential campaign — crisscross the Granite State, speak to small crowds, mingle afterward, and engage in the type of retail politics that the rest of the country outside of Iowa can only dream about.
O’Day has been a political junkie since 1968. As an 11-year-old newspaper delivery boy, he was fascinated by stories about Robert Kennedy’s run for the White House.
He worked on Al Gore’s 1988 race. In 2000, when the Tennessee senator ran again, O’Day left Westport for New Hampshire to help. “It was so cool to see how folks there gathered at diners and VFW halls to see the candidates,” he recalls. “They were as engaged in politics as I am.”
He returned in 2004 and ’08. Board of Ed commitments kept him here 4 years ago. But last week — as he did 8 years ago — O’Day traveled north with his wife Toni and sons Donny, Tom and Michael.
Over the course of a few days O’Day heard all 7 Republican candidates, and both Democrats, speak. He asked questions, gave feedback, and spoke personally with most.
Some encounters confirmed his earlier impressions. Others altered them.
Here — in alphabetical order — are O’Day’s thoughts:
Jeb Bush (at a middle school in Bedford): “He’s personable and decent. He’s accomplished — he helped improve schools in Florida.”
When the former governor asked for questions following his talk, O’Day went first. He described Mike Weaver’s dramatic, 15th-round left hook knockout in the 1980 heavyweight championship fight.
Referring to the debate that would be held in a few hours, O’Day told Bush: “You’re Mike Weaver. Throw that punch tonight.”
Bush seemed uncomfortable at first, but thanked O’Day. He said he was the only Republican candidate attacking Trump. Then he shadow-boxed on stage. Afterward, former candidate Lindsey Graham — stumping with Bush — sought O’Day out, and thanked him.
“That night, he was fired up,” O’Day says. “I may have helped!”
Ben Carson (Radisson Hotel, Manchester TV taping). O’Day watched the retired neurosurgeon being interviewed by Chuck Todd.
“He seems like a very nice guy, but he’s not someone whose skills are transferable to being president,” O’Day says.
Chris Christie (Strafford Farms Restaurant, Dover): Seated very close to the New Jersey governor, O’Day asked him a challenging question about Social Security means testing.
“He was completely honest,” O’Day says. “He answered my question, point by point. He said the money is not there anymore, and he doesn’t support increasing taxes for it. I can’t support him — but I really liked his honesty.”
Hillary Clinton (Manchester YMCA and at a dinner in Manchester): The former Secretary of State stuck around to meet voters after her Y talk. “I was pleasantly surprised how engaging she was with everyone,” O’Day says.
He told her how well she’d done in the most recent debate. “She maintained eye contact despite all this distractions.” When he asked for a photo, she took his phone for a selfie. There were problems with the device, which she tried to fix before handing it to an aide who tried unsuccessfully for a shot.
“She’s going non-stop and showing great effort,” O’Day says. “I liked her more than I thought I would. And she’s clearly my wife’s favorite.”
Ted Cruz (Generals Sports Bar & Grill, Weare): O’Day calls the Texas senator “a little full of himself. He believes he is Reagan. He seems like the kid in school you can’t warm up to.”
The Cruz appearance was the only place O’Day heard an audience member read from a prepared question. This one was about Scripture.
O’Day gave Cruz credit for answering that he is not trying to head up a religious movement. “The President of the United States is the president of all the people,” he said. Still, O’Day got the impression that “he’s doing whatever he thinks is good for Ted Cruz.”
John Kasich (American Legion Hall, Alton): The Ohio governor was “very engaging and effective.
“He’s disciplined — the kind of guy who would get the job done. Of everyone running, he seems the one who would cross party lines the most. He’d stick to his guns, but compromise when he had to.”
Marco Rubio (Frank Jones Center, Portsmouth): “I love my little brother,” O’Day says. “But at the end of the day, he’s still my little brother. Rubio needs more seasoning.”
O’Day told the Florida senator he had a far superior answer to a debate question about the “nuclear triad” than Trump — and added that he hadn’t seen anyone in the media mention it. Rubio thanked O’Day. On Sunday morning during a TV interview, Rubio criticized Trump for not knowing anything about that triad.
Bernie Sanders (Shaheen dinner, Manchester): “There were far more Bernie supporters at that dinner than there were for Hillary. And his people were louder and younger. It brought me back to Robert Kennedy. People gravitate toward him.”
However, O’Day likens the phenomenon to ordering a meal on an expense account: “When the bill comes, you don’t have to pay. I’ve been a banker for 35 years. It’s not in my best interest to vote for someone who will take down my employer.”
But, O’Day says, “I love what he’s done for politics.”
O’Day was too far away for a good photo of the Vermont senator. His son Donny shot this video:
Donald Trump (Exeter Town Hall): He had the longest line, by far: 600 people. It was the only venue with protesters — and the only one that was an “event,” not a “political rally.”
O’Day likens the businessman to Michael Jordan: “He may have been the best basketball player, but he couldn’t shift his skill set to baseball.
“There’s no substance whatever to Trump. I couldn’t see him being president during the Cuban Missile Crisis. We need a president to be calm. Trump speaks before he thinks.”
O’Day returned home Sunday. Yesterday — the day before the primary — he was still stoked.
“Going up there is always awesome,” he says. “Everyone I talk to says they want to do it. You feel like a groupie. But it’s the best civics lesson in the world.”
So will he head to New Hampshire again, in 2020?
“Probably,” O’Day says. “But based on my ‘throw that punch’ comment to Bush, maybe I should be an adviser.”