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Lights, Camera, Primary! NEW ENGLAND GOES ON STAGE

By Clayton JonesNew England bureau chief of The Christian Science Monitor / February 22, 1980

Dixville Notch, N.H.

Up in the Granite State's north country, where snowless and mild days have caused maple sap to flow early and where presidential aspirants have swarmed like black flies in spring, the voters in Dixville Notch are getting ready to cast the first ballots in the nation's first state primary of the year.

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At the stroke of midnight as Feb. 26 begins, this town's 15 Republicans and 8 Democrats will meet in the "ballot room" of the Balsams Hotel. They will carry on a two-decade tradition of reporting the earliest returns in the New Hampshire primary, the political launching pad to the White House.

This year, the ballot room's thermostat will be turned down to 65 degrees to save oil, wood logs will blaze in a stone fireplace, and the lights will be powerd by the town's new sawdust-burning electric generating plant. A copy of the Manchester Union Leader, a pro-Reagan newspaper, will likely be close at hand, and local officials plan to take a quick tally of the votes this year. The event is sure to be recorded in force by television cameras and reporters as never before.

Like many New Englanders, people in Dixville have been affected by such pervasive influences as double-digit inflation, $1-a-gallon heating oil, often frustrating federal rules on business and local affairs, and a new concern for Soviet aggression and an apparent lowering of American dignity abroad.

The six-state region, home of Yankee independence and birthplace of American industry, has an early and influential start in the presidential sweepstakes. Yet New England is home to only a 6 percent share of the American population. New Hampshire goes to the polls Feb. 26 to choose delegates to the national Democratic and Republican Party conventions this summer. Maine already has begun or finished various local caucuses to choose representatives to statewide delegate-selection conventions this spring. Massachusetts conducts its primary March 4. Vermont has an nonbinding "beauty contest" primary, also in March 4. Connecticut runs its first-ever primary March 25. (Rhode Island, meanwhile, does not hold a primary until June 3.)

Voters in Dixville are very able to pass firsthand judgments on the charaters and competence of each candidate. Most, if not all, of the presidential contenders have whistle-stopped through the town at least once, maybe twice, and -- if a candiate reallym wants to win -- three times. In fact, a popular joke in Dixville is told about a farmer asked to vote for a Republican candidate, George Bush. The response: "Well, can't say I will yet. Only met 'im twice."

If any group of people should feel that its votes make a difference in the direction of the country, it has to be the voters of Dixville Notch.

And yet, as interviews here as well as with dozens of other New Englanders and political workers show, a mood of sober realism about the increasingly limited power of any US president crops up among the electorate like granite boulders in a spring thaw.

"I worry that my vote may not really matter. I'm concerned about the inability of any president to get the job done," says Warren Pearson, a Dixville Republican.

Another Dixville voter, Raoul Jolin, a Democrat who speaks with a slight French-Canadian accent, is betting on Jimmy Carter to win, but he says, "Somehow it doesn't really make a difference."

New England voters, bred on frugality and sacrifice in the past decade of more-than-average economic and energy hardship, have lowered their expectations of what government can do.

Perceptions are prevalent that a fractions Congress has a tighter grip on a one-imperial presidency and that textbook notions of how government is supposed to work have little day-to-day meaning when people's lives are beset by such unwieldy forces as inflation, world energy prices, and "big" business, unions, and government.

A visceral hope still remains among some that one man can imbue the nation with purpose against all odds, but is a hope buried deeper than ever.

"People don't sense a marked distinction between candidates," says Lawrence Radway, a Dartmouth College political professor.

What people are left with, New Hampshire pollster Dickinson Bennett says, is voting out of a sense of duty and just to be "involved."