New Hampshire Gets Personal and Gets It Right

Even on a day when the wind chill factor is terrifying in the abstract and nearly unbearable in person, I'm honored to be here just to talk to the citizens of New Hampshire. I should capitalize that: Citizens of New Hampshire.

Everyone here takes their citizenship very seriously. This week I met two ladies, one retired and one still working in real estate, who told me they are "assessing" the candidates. After all, they have the responsibility to move somebody along in the process with the understanding that their candidate might go all the way. They've made a point of going to see every candidate speak, before they decide.

I met a woman who said in a sad voice that she had lost her candidate in Iowa. When Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt withdrew from the race this week, she had to start over. I saw her at an event for John Edwards. She was not yet convinced to vote for the North Carolina senator, but despite her disappointment she was gamely going on with her search for a candidate. New Hampshire, like Iowa, will winnow this year's crop of possible presidents.

Up here in New Hampshire, campaigns often put out a call for hosts with places to put up their younger workers. I talked to a couple of families who have taken in college students working for campaigns. It was especially interesting that the young people were working for candidates that their hosts may not like — it's just another way the people here support the process and the primary.

I think of New Hampshire's voters as semi-pro political participants. Unlike most voters, they even understand the role the press plays in politics; they tolerate us and often help. Keep in mind that there are plenty of events where a ravenous press corps — marauders with microphones — dive at the candidate, sweeping New Hampshire's actual voters out of their path. Too often I approach a person at one of these events to ask about their preferences and find myself facing a person with a notebook just like mine: another reporter. But when I do cut a voter out of the pack to talk, they're remarkably patient. They know that their views matter and they're happy to share them.

They are also happy to go around the press and speak directly with the candidates. Sometimes, I was told this week by a longtime resident, the press "labels" a candidate and sometimes that label is wrong. Former Vice President Albert Gore was not "stiff", a New Hampshire voter told me. After meeting him several times, she felt that was unfair. Another person spoke up for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. He's not "unapproachable" she said, he's very good with people. So good, she said, that she had a meet-the-candidate event for him in her backyard last summer.

The people we've met keep track of candidates, they see them several times over several months and find that sometimes the candidates grow and change. It's as if the state functions as a kind of crucible, where candidates can refine and redefine their ideas — with lots of guidance from the voters of this state. I admire their seriousness more than I can say. If it weren't so cold, I'd consider moving here.

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