Franconia Notch, N.H. — HIGH in the White Mountains, New Hampshire's venerable ``Old Man of the Mountains'' stares out across the state in stony silence. Thirteen hundred feet under, and one mile north of his granite nose, is Cannon Mountain ski area. Here the locals of this conservative Yankee state are just about as chatty as the ``Old Man'' when it comes to politics.
``My wife doesn't even know who I'm votin' for,'' says George Thompson of Littleton. ``I don't know who she's votin' for. We may cancel each other out. I figure that's our privilege, and our business.'' George, having exhausted his discourse on politics, continues his business as maintenance mechanic here.
``Bert over there's a Democrat, aren'tcha Bert?'' says Robert Ball in a stage whisper to a fellow worker who just sat down beside us. ``Gonna vote for Dukakis, Bert? Are ya?'' Mr. Ball goads, adding a chuckle.
``They can keep him in Massachusetts,'' Bert mumbles as he bolts up from the bench, cups his hands to his mouth, blows some hot air into them, and walks off in a huff.
Bob Ball has been running the aerial tramway for 25 years. The tram can lift up to 80 skiers at a time 2,002 feet to the top of Cannon in six minutes. ``Good job. Just gotta learn to dress for the weather,'' says Ball, listing off the layers of clothing he's wearing: ``T-shirt; turtleneck; wool plaid; coat.''
Bob says the area here isn't just Republican, as it used to be. ``I voted for a Democrat for president once,'' he says. ``Truman.''
He doesn't think Iowa politics matters here at all. ``Too many independent thinkers in New Hampshire,'' he says.
At the summit we're helped off the tram by a young man with sharp ice-blue eyes, mustache encrusted with real ice, and a full reddish-brown beard.
``Meet `Mad Mountain Dean,''' says Ball, stepping out onto the bright orange girders. ``He's from up the road in Haverhill.''
``Any interest in politics?'' I ask Mr. M.M. Dean.
``Any idea who you're voting for?''
``What about politics in your hometown?'' I ask, turning the broader political perspective. ``Any interest there?''
With that Oriana Fallaci in-depth interview concluded, and the ink in my ball-point pen frozen, it was time to head back down the mountain.
Fortunately New Hampshire folks are a little warmer and less taciturn farther south.
Ashland is a mill town about 40 minutes south, down Interstate 93.
L.W. Packard Textile Mill ``employs most of the town,'' says a Packard employee, who is a little short of front teeth, but long on verbosity. ``We gotta get a Democrat no matter what. We need a Democrat. We need Dukakis. Dukakis will get us jobs. He can do it here like he did it in Massa, Massa, Massa...''
``Massachusetts,'' his buddy and co-worker yells from across the room at the coffee machine, adding, ``He didn't do nuthin' for Massachusetts. He was in the right place at the right time.''
``Well if we don't get a Democrat, I'm goin' back to Alabama,'' says the first employee, slapping his hand on the counter.
In Ashland center, at Dal Cuore Pizza, three women from a neighboring town stop to seek refuge from the raw wind. They have just come from a not-too-successful night of bingo at the local Roman Catholic church.
``I can play 36 bingo cards at one time,'' boasts the oldest of the trio. ``She even won $700 once,'' her daughter-in-law says.
They open up a bit about politics as they thaw out their mittens on the large cast-iron radiator while owner Holly Wagner tops their pizza with sausage, mushrooms, and onions.
``I wouldn't mind if the minister got in,'' the youngest woman pipes up. ``Maybe then prayer would come back to the schools. I'm 21, and I quit school because of drugs. You couldn't even get into the girls room, the smell of pot was so heavy. Ya, I'm for the minister. What's his name?''
None of the three think that the Iowa caucuses made a difference up here.
``Iowa? Where's that?'' kids one of the women.
The older woman likes Gary Hart, sort of. ``I like him. I'm not saying I'll vote for him. But he has enough guts to get back in the race. He admitted he made a mistake, and said he was sorry, and got back in. Everyone makes mistakes, but how many of them admit it?'' she asks rhetorically.
Up the road at the Red Carpet Inn and across from a Pat Robertson for President poster planted in someone's front snow, a woman behind the counter doesn't like Mr. Hart for exactly the same reason.
``I think he really had a chance if he'd stayed in the race after all the hoopla. But when he pulled out and then got back in - what's the matter, couldn't he get another job?''
But she really likes the attention New Hampshire is getting. ``I think the people really feel they know best up here. Ashland's a pretty conservative town, and the locals really like it when the politicians come up. It makes them feel important. You know, Elizabeth Dole was here a few weeks ago. Stayed right here at the inn.''
A poll at Ashland High School confirmed the conservative bent. Of the 70-odd students in Grades 9 through 12, George Bush got 26 votes, Robert Dole and Michael Dukakis, 14 each, with other candidates trailing behind. Jesse Jackson got 3 votes, edging out Hart, Paul Simon, and Bruce Babbitt. Richard Gephardt got none.
``He [Mr. Jackson] really only got 2,'' says Derek Purvis, a freshman. ``I voted twice,'' he admits sheepishly.
For a 15-year-old, Derek has a strong interest in politics, if a bit radical. ``I think the country needs another depression to get people back to the old work ethic again,'' he says. ``It will show people you can't have luxuries without earning the basics.''
Derek wants to be an architect. ``Now there's a country-saving idea,'' he laughs.
Derek's mother, Joanna, is a Jackson supporter, too. ``Did you see the last debate?'' she asks. ``He was a peacemaker on that stage. I voted for him the last time when [Walter] Mondale ran. I wrote Jackson's name in. I didn't like Mondale's running mate [Geraldine Ferraro]. All she expressed was aggressiveness. I don't like aggressiveness in men either,'' she adds. She's going to write in the Rev. Jackson's name during the general election in November, no matter who wins the Democratic ticket.
Down in Manchester, Pierre (Pete) du Pont's headquarters takes up the second floor above an empty building in the center of town. All three women volunteers are beautifully dressed and articulate. One, a blonde from Mr. du Pont's home state of Delaware, is patiently listening to an elderly gentleman.
``Now you want to know how Pete feels about pulling the UN out of the country, right?'' she repeats his question as she scribbles it on a note pad. He nods: ``That's right! There's 400 KGB agents in the UN, and I want to know what du Pont plans to do about it.''
``We'll, I'm not sure just how Pete feels about that, but I'll call Washington and get back to you. Is that all right with you? May I take your number?''
The gentleman answers that he has a lot of time on his hands, and will be back.
Sherri Buckholder is a senior at Dartmouth. She's taking off the semester to work for du Pont. ``My family's pretty much apolitical, but they'll listen to me,'' Ms. Buckholder says.
Farther up the road at the coin laundry a mother is stuffing clothes into a washing machine while two toddlers are demanding her attention.
``Right now I'm curiously indifferent. Too many politicians come through here and make too many promises and leave and we never hear from them again.''
In the costal town of Portsmouth, Ken Rex stands behind the counter at F.A. Gray Paints and Wallcovering store on Daniel Street. He's been mixing paint and selling brushes for over 20 years - ``since I left the Coast Guard.''
``Oh, I'll vote,'' he says. ``Don't know who for, but I'll vote. It's a privilege,'' Mr. Rex continues as two fellow workers nod in silent agreement.
``George, I think that's his name. Anyway, he owns a candy store up the street. I know he's votin' for Bush. He lives on the same street as Bush in Kennebunkport [in Maine]. If Bush gets in, he's puttin' his house up for sale. That property will go sky high.''
Up the block, ``George,'' whose real name turns out to be Paul, responds, ``That's not quite fair. I'm voting for [Bush] because he's a good man and he has a nice family. His oldest boy came in here recently. They're quality people, all of them,'' Paul explains.
Tuesday evening, as the Iowa caucuses are about to close, the staff at the Dukakis headquarters in Concord is straightening up, turning off the lights, and heading for Manchester.
One man with black hair, red sweater, smoky glasses, and a thick gold chain comments, ``We're going down to the Athens Restaurant to watch the polls come in. I hear Bush just left Iowa for New Hampshire, too. I guess you know why - doesn't want to be in Iowa when the votes come in,'' he says with a smirk.
Mr. Gephardt's headquarters is a hive of activity. Telephones ring as cups of coffee in paper cups are passed around. ``It's business as usual,'' says press secretary Hollis Friedman. ``We're going to stay right here and do mailings and door hangers.'' One volunteer tacks a letter on the bulletin board. It's from nine-year-old Beth Hanover. ``Please vote for Gephardt, he'll serve you right. He's AWESOME!''
Beside it is a Mailgram from the Iowa field staff:
``Things going well here but we need to kick some butt come Feb 16. Keep up the good work. Go Dick!''
At Albert Gore's headquarters, two lone and laid-back students were watching the first Iowa caucus results begin to come in with passive interest. Their man wasn't really in the race there.
``We're just going to wait for the New Hampshire primary next Tuesday. In the meantime we'll handle any questions that come in,'' says a young, dark-haired volunteer. ``Part of the challenge working for a candidate is to answer all the questions.''
He's heard some pretty bizarre ones. ``One man came in and asked how Gore felt about headlights! Well, I said, `I know he uses them.'''
``As it turns out he works at the Sylvania plant in town and heard there were some new ones being imported that weren't as good, so he was concerned.''
The real activity that night in Concord is at the Hart office. There eight college students from Boston University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard, and Plymouth College are reading phone numbers off computer screens and making phone calls. A five-inch black-and-white television is on, but not being watched. The operation is being handled by Chris Ducey.
`It's easy to be cynical,'' says Mr. Ducey, who's taken the semester off from Boston University to work for Hart. ``There's 100,000 jokes about Hart out there and if you're not informed, they get in the way.''
He's not expecting much more than the Gore people. But wait until New Hampshire, he says. Voting in the Iowa caucuses is a public performance, he thinks, not like here. ``New Hampshire is a secret-ballot state. No matter what anyone says in public, the most important thing is when you vote and the curtain is closed and no one is looking over your shoulder.
``Just wait a week, then we'll see,'' he says with wide-eyed optimism, pinning a ``Hart 1988'' button on my shirt to the applause of his staff.