Take my primary - please!

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Live in New Hampshire long enough, and you're bound to get made fun of for one reason or another. But a well-kept secret is that most Granite Staters make fun of themselves when it comes to our first-in-the-nation presidential-primary status. Most of us would be happy if some other state stole that status from us.

The hoops every candidate has to leap through to stay in the spotlight have turned local media into a nonstop circus four years out of four.

You think the home stretch leading up to presidential election day in November is bad? Imagine what it's like to listen to news reports about Lamar Alexander sinking his teeth into barbecued chicken every day for three years straight.

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One day in the summer of 1998, it was a relief when a local radio station bumped a story about Mr. Alexander's appearance at a clambake a few towns over to lead off with a cat-up-a-tree report.

The truth is that many here are like people everywhere when it comes to politics: too busy to care. Most who faithfully attend the endless rallies and town meetings are retired folk who have time on their hands.

When the vast majority of residents pick up a copy of their local paper, they scan the obits or yesterday's stock report first, leaving little time to read a story about Steve Forbes's visit to the Laconia senior center. We didn't hold it against George W. Bush that he spent little time in the state last year - if he had, we'd probably be tired of him now.

But given the entire primary cycle, at least the final stretch is a breath of fresh air.

The candidates have replaced sucking on pork rinds and swatting black flies with well-rehearsed genteel verbal sparring in front of hot network lights. So far, I've read stories about how supposedly casual town meetings are staged down to the last poignant pause, while The New York Times ran a travel piece about the best places in the state to catch the candidates in person.

During the 1996 primary, I would have liked to see the national media do a story about the 23 signs for Steve Forbes that suddenly sprouted along the four miles of mostly dirt road between my house and the post office, a stretch that holds maybe 20 houses, max. It didn't take long for the signs to be used for post hunting-season target practice.

If another state stole the primary, they'd also take the relentless pollsters off our hands.

In the last three weeks, I've received five calls from telemarketers who would have been flipping burgers if the economy wasn't bustling.

One began, "As a registered Republican, do you favor McCainBushHatchForbesBauer?"

"I'm not a Republican, I'm an independent. How did I get on your list?"

Silence. She probably didn't know what the word meant. I took advantage of the lull in our conversation to hang up.

A friend, also an independent, enjoys taking liberties when pollsters call. He's received at least a call a day for a month and likes to say he's voting for Gary Bauer. This, from a man who regularly dons a bulletproof vest to escort women through anti-abortion protesters into a women's health clinic.

A day after I witnessed one of his Bauer testimonials, sure enough, Bauer had blipped upward a percentage point. It made me wonder how many others were manipulating the polls.

Purists like to paint the New Hampshire primary as the last bastion of American-Politics-The-Way- We-Were, where people actually have a say in the matter. Maybe it was true once, but the national spotlight combined with the all-the-eggs-in-one-basket significance of this state's voting peccadilloes permanently taint it. We all know it.

Don't get me wrong - I vote in the primary every four years. But I usually decide long before the program directors at local radio stations start rubbing their hands anticipating the primary ad revenues.

As an independent, I love being able to switch allegiances for the time it takes to grab my ballot, walk over to the rickety voting booth, pull the ragged curtain around me, and mark my X with a stubby pencil.

After the voting, the primary is quickly forgotten as the occasion turns into an excuse to visit with people and get a good meal, because the ladies in town spend a few days cooking in preparation.

The next time another state wants the primary, most of us would agree: You can have it. We just have to find another excuse to get together on a blustery winter day every four years.

*Lisa Rogak is the author of 25 books, including 'Pretzel Logic,' a novel set in a small New Hampshire town. She lives in Grafton, N.H., where she runs Williams Hill Publishing.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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