Reporters, photographers, campaign operatives and itinerant political junkies open their wallets wide when they visit small-town American cities with U.S. presidential candidates on the campaign trail.

Yet the hordes come and go quickly, and the chief economic benefit is free publicity, business owners in Iowa, South Carolina, New Hampshire and Michigan say.

“Sometimes there’s this perception that businesses here are living off the primary; it couldn’t be further from the truth,” said Michael Skelton, economic development director for the chamber of commerce in Manchester, N.H., which held its Republican and Democratic primaries Jan. 8.

Before presidential candidates visit, Russell Richardson moves tables and chairs to clear space for TV lights and speakers in his Aiken, S.C. restaurant. Cooks show up two hours early to smoke brisket, and Richardson ups the number of waiters scheduled.

Television cameramen stood outside for hours along with a crowd of more than 200 people when Fred Thompson dropped by, but the hoopla didn’t produce much in extra business, Richardson says.

Seated diners stayed longer than usual to hear Thompson speak, slowing table turnover. Some customers went next door to eat.

“We didn’t profit from it, but we did get great press,” Richardson said. “I’ve already had people come to the restaurant from as far away as Augusta,” about 20 miles away.

The story seems to be the same from state to state.

Business was up 40 percent in December over last year for 801 Steak, a restaurant in downtown Des Moines, Iowa, where caucuses held Jan. 3 kicked off the primary season. Media and campaign workers were behind the boost, says general manager Sheri Osborn.

In downtown Manchester, N.H., the Tee Shirt Bodega sold as many as 100 items a day for four straight days, quadruple the usual take, before the primary.

“I didn’t have more than a second to spend with anybody” beyond ringing up their purchases, said owner Chad Tardugno, who extended store hours to accommodate out-of-town shoppers.

Yet the business evaporates when visitors pack up and move on after staying a month, a week, sometimes just a day. It’s hardly enough to sustain a business over the long term.

“They ran out of here so fast this time it’s hard to compare it to other times,” said Bob Molloy, owner of Molloy Sound and Video Contractors in Manchester, who adds he never pushes away regulars for primary-related customers.

In Des Moines, the Iowa caucuses usually aren’t even the biggest moneymaker in town. That honor goes to the Drake Relays, a national collegiate track and field event.

If the bottom-line impact is short-lived, the free publicity and boost in state pride are their own rewards, says Edwards.

Iowans “know the importance of their role in the presidential process – electing the most powerful person in the world,” he adds.

For local workers, the excitement of the caucuses serves to offset the downside, including long days, last-minute schedule changes and demanding visitors.

In Laurens, S.C., Ernie Whiteford packed a standing-room-only crowd of more than 200 diners into his Whiteford’s Big Burger Inc. for an appearance by Thompson nearly two weeks ago.

“I don’t see that I made any more dollars than normal,” he said afterward. But, “Fox News was here, Channel Four was here, The Laurens Advertiser. … I couldn’t have bought that advertising.”

In Myrtle Beach, S.C., which hosted a Republican debate on Jan. 10, the chamber of commerce hasn’t had time to calculate increased spending at businesses in the region, officials say. But one media consultant it retains estimates the resort area received $6 million worth of broadcast-media publicity in the five days after the event – well more than its yearly promotional budget, said Kimberly Miles, the chamber’s public relations manager. The state holds its primaries on separate days over a weeklong period.

Maurine Bowman, director of sales and marketing at the Radisson Hotel in Manchester says she recalled feeling a part of something special even as she tripped over broadcast camera power cords and was jostled in overcrowded rooms.

“There were interviews all over the place,” she said. “It just can’t be helped. If there’s a candidate walking through the hotel, there are a lot of impromptu interviews.”

With so many lenses focused on the activity in primary states, businesses and local officials also learn to be ready for publicity possibilities.

This year was the first caucus for the Village Bean, located across the street from Barack Obama’s headquarters in Des Moines.

“Like anything, this was our first time and we were reacting,” said owner Kirk Trow. After the caucuses, Trow said he planned to order logos for his coffee cups, which were shown on national TV sans company name this year.

“This was a planning opportunity for the next time,” he said.


AP Business Writers Candice Choi in New York and Donna Borak in Washington contributed to this report.

AP-ES-01-25-08 1803EST

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