With New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary less than a week away, the publisher of the state's largest paper, the Union Leader, told NPR's Robert Siegel his assessment of how the Republican presidential race has played out thus far in a single word: "Extraordinary."
And the reason he describes the GOP campaign that way boils down to Donald Trump, who, despite coming in second in the Iowa caucuses this week, enjoys a double-digit advantage in most New Hampshire polls.
"It's extraordinary, because of the Trump factor and the other candidates trying to vie against Trump," said Joe McQuaid, who has worked at the Union Leader for a half century.
"Trump has overturned the table," he added.
McQuaid's dealings with the billionaire businessman have been toxic. In an editorial in December, McQuaid compared Trump to the bully "Biff" from the movie Back to the Future.
New Hampshire Public Radio's Josh Rogers last month described the feud this way:
"The hostility is mutual, especially since the paper endorsed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. Trump's been a regular target in the paper's editorial pages and branded a bully by publisher Joe McQuaid. Trump has called McQuaid a 'lowlife' and made his paper stump speech fodder during campaign stops in the state.
" 'The famous paper, right? You know, your little paper, the Union Leader. It's really a dishonest paper, it's terrible. It's a rag,' Trump said at a recent rally in New Hampshire."
"It's interesting," McQuaid told NPR. "I expected after the Christie endorsement to be flamed on the Twitterverse by Trump, but it wasn't until I called him out in a front-page editorial that it made a difference to him."
McQuaid also lamented the outsize impact money has had on the New Hampshire primary.
"There is still the smallest of chances that a long-shot candidate, like McCain in 2008, when he was down-and-out, can come set up camp in New Hampshire and try his case before the people," McQuaid said. "But it is more and more being drowned out by TV and Internet commercials. In Trump's case, by the free media that the media give Trump and then express surprise at how well Trump does in the polls. It's nonstop."
McQuaid said he hopes to be "pleasantly surprised" and see another candidate come in "second to Trump" Tuesday in New Hampshire. He names Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey, John Kasich of Ohio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush as possible challengers.
"One of those guys," McQuaid said, "I hope, will finish strong enough to carry the fight on, and beat Trump down South."
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Now to New Hampshire, where our co-host, Robert Siegel, is reporting on the Republican primary race. He stopped at a fabled political institution - the state's largest newspaper, the New Hampshire Union Leader. They paper has endorsed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie. From the end of World War II to the election of Ronald Reagan, the Union Leader was published by William Loeb Jr. Loeb was a player in Republican politics. He routinely ran front-page editorials pushing his causes and candidates. As Robert found, the paper's current publisher is less the showman, but no less a creature of the institution Loeb left behind.
ROBERT SIEGEL, BYLINE: Josie W. McQuaid isn't just the publisher. The ink that runs in his newspaperman's veins is of this place, and it goes back generations.
JOSIE W. MCQUAID: I was born here.
SIEGEL: His father was the editor-in-chief. His mother worked in the accounting department. They met at the Union Leader. McQuaid's grandfather worked here before that. He's worked here all his adult life.
MCQUAID: I've been here for 50 years as office boy - finally got to the Peter principle level, where they've left me alone.
SIEGEL: So what, if anything, is striking, unusual or remarkable about this year's Republican primary?
MCQUAID: Extraordinary - it's extraordinary because of the Trump factor and the other candidates trying to vie against Trump. We put on a voter's forum in August. Trump wasn't at that event, which I was much relieved that he wasn't. And I thought this was a great field. But Trump has just overturned the table.
SIEGEL: Joe McQuaid has run front-page editorials opposing Trump, and Trump has had the newspaper bounced from a televised debate. McQuaid's dealings with Trump are so toxic they echo an episode out of Joe McQuaid's journalistic salad days. In 1972, his then-boss, William Loeb, published stories that infuriated the Democratic front-runner, Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie. Muskie pulled a truck in front of the paper's headquarters and, with a bullhorn, denounced Loeb as a liar.
MCQUAID: I'm the kid Sunday editor, and I'm going to have to write a headline - Muskie calls Loeb liar, which I did. And I called up Loeb for his reaction, and he said he gets upset what a little old newspaper publisher says about him? I wouldn't want a guy like that with his hand on the nuclear button. Fast forward to a few weeks ago, my night editor sends me an e-mail saying, can you help me with the headline for tomorrow's front page because she doesn't want to write it, so I do. It says, Trump calls McQuaid lowlife.
MCQUAID: I can't get out of my own way.
MCQUAID: But he didn't call me low-energy, so I got that going for me.
SIEGEL: (Laughter). How much has money changed the New Hampshire primary?
MCQUAID: I think it's changed it a great deal. There is still the smallest of chances that a long-shot candidate, like McCain in 2008 when he was down and out, can come set up camp in New Hampshire and try his case before the people. But it is more and more being drowned out. Flick on CNN, Fox, MSNBC, any of them - here's Donald Trump live, saying nothing. Let's go to him now - over and over and over again. So he gets it free. One of the complaints he had against me was that I asked him for ads. Initially, I did, and he gave us advertisements, which he decided he didn't need because he's getting it all for free. And he told me that on the phone. So very smartly, the last of four ads under the contract, he advertised the Doral golf course.
SIEGEL: As opposed to his campaign?
MCQUAID: As opposed to his campaign.
SIEGEL: McQuaid is surprised by other aspects of this Republican primary campaign - for example, the candidacy of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.
MCQUAID: A third Bush? Are you kidding? I don't care if he's the best. You can't do that. It's not going to work. I was surprised in 2012 when the Republican Party decided, let's see - let's go against Obama seeking reelection with the richest, whitest, most coolest guy we can find. Enter Mitt Romney. That surprised me. So this thing with Bush surprised me, A, that they backed him and, B, that he can't seem to get it together, which is precisely why we didn't endorse him. So I can still be easily surprised, and I hope I'm pleasantly surprised on February 9 that somebody strong finishes a strong second to Trump, whether it's Gov. Christie or Gov. Bush or Gov. Kasich. One of those guys, I hope, will finish strong enough to carry the fight on and beat Trump down south.
SIEGEL: Joe McQuaid, thanks for talking with us.
MCQUAID: Oh, you're entirely welcome.
SIEGEL: Joe McQuaid, publisher of Union Leader. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.