Granite State carves an election-centered identity

Every four years, presidential candidates flood in, boosting business - and the pride of residents who assess them.

Sit at the counter in the Chez Vachon diner long enough and you're almost guaranteed a handshake from a presidential candidate.

Wesley Clark has stopped by. So have Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman - though all are more likely to sip coffee and pose for pictures than to enjoy the house specials: pork pie and smothered fries.

It's good for business, says owner Paul Normand, but it can also be a drag: "They all have the same thing to say."

New Hampshire voters have a curious relationship with the presidential candidates and the money and attention that flow in every four years. They're proud to host the nation's first primary and bristle at suggestions that they're becoming less relevant as other states move up their primary dates.

But voters here are picky. They expect candidates to pose on dog sleds, hurl axes, and attend lobster bakes. But they'd better not repeat Lamar Alexander's mistake of importing the lobsters from Maine.

Boost for business - and the state ego

Whether you call it pride or arrogance, this bottom line is this: The Granite State's identity is wrapped up in the special role it plays in choosing the president.

"I love it," says Socrates Makris, who met two candidates this fall when they showed up at restaurants where he was eating dinner. "We help the nation figure out where we're going, and that way people don't think we're just a bunch of old farmers." Such chance encounters explain why as many as 1 in 10 voters here have met a candidate and why voter turnout rates are among the nation's highest.

And merchants love the boost in business, particularly here in Manchester, the state's largest city, where campaigns and reporters will camp out for two weeks before the Jan. 27 primary.

The Center of New Hampshire Holiday Inn is renovating its lobby and installing wireless internet access. Business this January will be twice as high as in off years, with most rooms booked four years in advance, says general manager R. Sean O'Kane. Neighboring restaurants - where such notables as Peter Jennings and Tom Brokaw supplant regulars - are ordering extra cases of wine.

The biggest single winner is New Hampshire's lone commercial television station, WMUR. Its high-tech studio earned the nickname "the House that Forbes built" for the volume of TV ads purchased by candidate Steven Forbes during his 1996 presidential bid.

This time around, John Edwards alone spent $575,000 on 1,100 ads broadcast on the station as of Dec. 1 - and the heaviest blitzes haven't even begun yet, according to the University of Wisconsin's Advertising Project, which tracks campaign ad spending.

Still, the $300 million the primary brings isn't all that much - less than one percent of the state's economy - an amount equivalent to what's brought in by New Hampshire's annual motorcycle rally in Laconia or the NASCAR track in Loudon.

The bigger boost is to the state's reputation - and ego. "Every four years, we're told we have the most enlightened, smartest, scrupulous electorate in America," says Andrew Smith, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. "We've gotten a little bit spoiled."

Mr. Smith argues that the front-loading of primaries makes New Hampshire more important - not less, as some others suggest. But the flurry of attention isn't what it used to be. With the primary schedule so compressed, candidates are spending less time overnight in the state as they jet off elsewhere for fundraisers and campaign events elsewhere. Howard Dean's 30 point lead in the polls leaves other candidates pouring more money into TV ads in Iowa.

Sighs, sightings, and moving boxes

Manchester barber Roland Bergeron still expects plenty of extra customers in coming weeks - though after seven primary cycles, he's gotten a little cynical. Many reporters come in for haircuts. Far more come in desperate for interviews with "average Joes" sitting in his chair. "It's good for business, but then you're happy to see them leave," he says.

Amy DeLisle, who moved to New Hampshire from North Carolina six months ago, hasn't had time to grow jaded. So she was excited earlier this month when staff from three presidential campaigns checked in to the Three Chimney Inn in Durham, where she works the front desk.

For one night, the town got a taste of the onslaught to come as the University of New Hampshire hosted the state's first debate of the season, with all nine presidential candidates. The streets filled with satellite trucks; the strip of campus bars tuned in to C-SPAN and hosted parties attended by candidates and their supporters.

Ms. DeLisle delivered a fax to Sen. Joe Lieberman's door, ordered takeout for John Edwards's staff, and met ABC anchor Ted Koppel, who ate dinner at the inn after moderating the debate. "It was a very exciting night," she says.

And she may see more of Senator Lieberman soon: This week he moved, temporarily, to a basement apartment in Manchester.

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