ON a morning cold enough to freeze a reporter's ballpoint pen in mid-sentence, Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa was wearing gloves, jeans and an orange hard-hat with ear flaps. He stood in a deep hole digging a new sewer line.
Five photographers, steamy-breathed and grunting, were in and out of the hole confirming a well-known fact. The serious quadrennial run for the presidency beginning with the New Hampshire primary Feb. 18 is not without a touch of the absurd. The Granite State has seen candidates engage in everything from sewer digging to singing to shedding tears.
But this time, troubled little New Hampshire has shown a low tolerance level for the absurd over the last few months. The fall from being one of the most prosperous state economies in the nation was quick and hard.
With only 192,000 registered Democrats and 254,000 registered Republicans, New Hampshire is now a small American portrait of frowning citizens and angry voices. Even conservative Republican Patrick Buchanan, seeing the anguish of the unemployed firsthand here, softened his hard-line views.
In four years, the state's unemployment rate has jumped from 2.7 percent (the lowest in the US) to a little over 7 percent. Unofficially it is higher because many people have run through benefits and extensions. The vigorous economic boom of the 1980s, led by electronics, computers, and defense-related industries, went limp as the economy in the Northeast collapsed. Shock waves hit banking, construction, and the real estate industries in New Hampshire.
The Salvation Army reports that the number of families it assists monthly in the Nashua area has risen from 200 to 600 in the last two years. And state economists say thousands of homeowners are behind in their mortgage payments.
Judy Bordeau, manager of the state Employment Security office in Concord, said, "It was worse in 1974, but this time is close. People come here looking for jobs and we have few jobs to refer them to."
Pamela Gagnon, a single mother living in Hillsborough with three children, recently lost her job on the night shift at Sylvania GTE. She was paid $7.43 an hour for making lightbulbs for automobile headlights.
Prior to that she had worked in the plant cafeteria for 2 1/2 years. Now she receives $86 a week from the state. m not getting child support from my ex-husband," she said, "and a teenage baby sitter was costing me $100 a week. It's really hard for me to use food stamps. I'd much rather be working."
At the employment office, a welder and carpenter named Paul has been out of work since June. He said he needs dental work and other minor health care. "That's last in my priorities," he said, "and food is next to last."
As the New Hampshire economy has faltered, retail businesses have felt the impact, too. For Donald Willis, manager of Merrimack Wayside Furniture for 25 years in Concord, business is way off. He is also concerned about a way of life disappearing.
"More people have gone out of business here in the last two years than have gone out in the last 40," he said, sitting in a showroom without a customer in sight. "The years between 1983 and '89 were wonderful. Everybody was happy and prosperous, but now I think there is a real change. I see a lack of trust in each other and a lack of confidence in government. I used to do business with a handshake years ago, and now I'm afraid my son and daughter will never know that concept."
Jobs. Health care. Trust.
Against this backdrop of issues, New Hampshire becomes a culling ground for candidates and all their proposals from health care to tax reform. It may be the only state with few enough people to make the old-fashioned way of campaigning - looking people in the eye and talking to them - more effective than TV ads.
These are mostly Republican towns, hills, and malls, dotted with hard-working people, traditionally conservative. Most of the population is clustered in the southeastern part of the state in Manchester, Concord, Portsmouth, and Nashua.
Nashua was virtually a boomtown in the 1980s, its population increasing by 17 percent primarily because it is within commuting distance to Boston. "Live in Nashua, commute to Boston, and don't pay state income or sales tax," was the siren call of ads placed in Boston papers in the mid '80s.
But despite these and other pluses, New Hampshire, with only four electoral votes, is largely unrepresentative of the diversity of the nation. In the big electoral states of California, New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania, candidates must address racial problems, entrenched crime problems, big-city politics, moneyed connections and corporate influence. These issues are small print in New Hampshire.
According to the 1990 Census only 7,198 blacks and 11,333 hispanics live in the state. Only four New Hampshire corporations are among the largest 1,000 in the country, and the rate for violent crime here is the third-lowest in the country.
But if a candidate wins big here, political history indicates he is likely to go all the way to Pennsylvania Avenue.
Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, according to polls, moved into the early lead among the Democratic contenders barnstorming the state, then faltered in the midst of unproven charges of marital infidelity.
"He was in here; so was [Sen. Bob] Kerrey," said Ann Mantis, owner of Downeast Doughnuts, a small counter inside a Newberry department store in Portsmouth, "but as well-meaning as all the candidates are, one person doesn't make a difference. I'm in no hurry to decide."
What has made this primary different from previous ones is widespread skepticism toward all the candidates. m still for Bush," said Paul Binette, chairman of the board of selectmen in Exeter, "but he did say no new taxes and look what happened. A lot of Republicans are unhappy. It's very possible that many people will change parties."
During numerous interviews for this article, a number of Republicans described their dilemma as having to choose between "the devil you know and the devil you don't know."
What is likely to happen is that a large percent of Republicans, disappointed with Bush and the economic doldrums, will vote for Pat Buchanan in the primary. "And they'll turn around and vote for Bush in the general election," said Richard Jones, a retired telephone company executive listening to Buchanan at an American Association of Retired People (AARP) meeting in Concord. 'They'll send Bush a wake-up call."
Among the Democratic candidates, Harriet Philbrick, manager of the Little Professor Book Center in Concord, sees little difference.
"Democrats?" she asks. "They are all about a five, not too great, not too terrible. I might just vote for [Ralph] Nader."
The last Democrat to win the general election in New Hampshire was Lyndon Johnson in l968.
Former Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, the Democratic candidate from next door, appears to have attracted the most young campaign workers. At his Manchester headquarters, about 15 are paid full-time staff, many from out of state. The pay is modest. They live with families, and are guests for meals at local restaurants and homes. Using voter lists, they make phone calls; they canvas shopping malls, knock on doors and organize events and rallies.
At Sen. Bob Kerrey's headquarters in Portsmouth, Fritz Habenicht from New Hampshire, is one of three paid staffers. "Kerrey has a lot of integrity," he said, petting the office mascot, a dog named Brandy, "and that is almost as important as the issues. That's why I'm here, because I don't think Bush understands people, and Kerrey does."
Susan Sasse, a former student teacher from Newburg, Ind., working for Kerrey, said, "New Hampshire is a long way from the corn fields of Indiana, but this is a good experience for me and to share with young kids in a classroom."
At Governor Clinton's headquarters in Portsmouth, Daren Roeder, a recent graduate of Skidmore College from Scarsdale, N.Y., is a lone Democrat in a family of Republicans. After reading Theodore White's "The Making of the President," he decided to work for Clinton. "I think he has the most articulated plan of all the candidates," says Mr. Roeder. "We are the eyes and ears for Clinton here, and they've given us a lot of responsibility."