MANCHESTER, N.H. — NEW HAMPSHIRE residents usually enjoy the serene country lifestyle of this northern New England state, but these days folks are saying it's just plain too quiet. After all, the 1992 presidential campaign season has begun, and the nation's first state presidential primary - traditionally held in New Hampshire - is a mere eight months away.
New Hampshire's primary, in late February or early March, is the country's first state primary and considered by some the most important. The winner of every presidential election since 1952 (Dwight Eisenhower) has first won the New Hampshire primary. Come primary time, candidates flock to this rural New England state to woo voters through appearances at local meetings, hand shaking on sidewalks, door-to-door campaigning, and ``living room'' visits.
But where are all the candidates this year? In years past, campaigning has started as early as two years before the primary.
But not this year. ``It's much slower than normal,'' says state Sen. Burt Cohen of Portsmouth. He and others here say that the Gulf War and President Bush's high popularity have been a big deterrent.
Although only one lone Democrat - former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts - has officially declared his candidacy in the presidential race, things have started to pick up a little in recent weeks. Mr. Tsongas's New Hampshire campaign office officially opened in Manchester last Friday.
And Sen. Tom Harkin (D) of Iowa attended a state Democratic event here last week, his second public appearance in New Hampshire this spring.
Other potential Democratic candidates who have made appearances in the state this year include Sen. John (Jay) Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, Gov. L. Douglas Wilder of West Virginia, and Sen. George Mitchell of Maine. Sen. Al Gore (D) of Tennessee is said to have been in touch with people by telephone but has yet to make a public appearance.
State Republicans, for their part, say things are extremely quiet.
But state Democrats, despite this year's slow start, are gearing up. ``They're here late, but they're here,'' says Chris Spirou, chairman of the state Democratic Party. ``We're going to see plenty more.''
State politicians like Mr. Spirou got a chance last week to size up one such candidate. That was Senator Harkin who breezed through Manchester to attend a testimonial dinner honoring state Sen. Mary Chambers, New Hampshire's state House Democratic leader. Harkin, the son of coal miner who calls himself a populist, shook hands and bantered with state politicians over a banquet-style chicken dinner.
New Hampshire leaders responded well to his visit. ``He has kind of a down-home style. I think that's real nice,'' said state Sen. Wayne King of Rumney.
The Iowa senator introduced the Americans with Disabilities Act in the Senate in 1989, legislation that helps protect the rights of the disabled. He is also a strong supporter of health care and education policies and stresses traditional themes of the Democratic Party.
Tsongas has made several public appearances here already. Some observers cite close ties to the state - he is graduate of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and a native of Lowell, Mass. - as advantages for him.
``I would say that Tsongas is receiving a warm reception,'' says Robert Arseneau, an assistant professor of government at Dartmouth. ``I think he's creating some interest because of his specific economic policies.''
The economy is indeed one issue that concerns many here in New Hampshire. Unemployment is high, with the jobless rate at 7.4 percent for March; one year ago it was only 5.5 percent. In addition, several of the state's largest banks are in difficulty.
But, most observers agree, it is still very early. Often candidates come to New Hampshire to test the waters and see how voters respond. Some, like Harkin, won't decide whether to run until around Labor Day.
New Hampshire is considered a political laboratory for would-be candidates and many activists here relish the candidate-scrutinizing process. The state's inquiring electorate makes a perfect test audience, notes Richard Winters, a professor of government at Dartmouth College. ``If there is one single redeeming feature of the New Hampshire primary, it is that there is large pool of activists that are as happy as clams to mercilessly question candidates ... about their beliefs, behavior, and practices,'' he says.
There's an old saying here, says Senator King of Rumney: `You never vote for a Democrat unless he's been in your living room.'''