IT'S a snowy, unforgiving night in the state capital, but the stands are filling up at the arena. The crowd anticipates a tough contest ahead, fueled by hard shots and high ambitions - and not a candidate or political slogan is in sight.
This is youth hockey, the ''national'' pastime of New Hampshire, a regional specialty that isn't eclipsed in importance even by next Tuesday's first-in-the-nation primary. But in interviews with adults in the bleachers and other voters in the area, it's clear Granite Staters take their politics seriously, almost as seriously as their kids' slapshots.
It's also clear, in this unscientific survey, that many Republicans remain undecided and aren't enthusiastic about their choices. Some seem, almost by default, to be settling on Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, the front-runner who barely won a plurality in Monday's Iowa caucuses.
''Well, I liked [Sen. Phil] Gramm, because of his economics,'' sighs Tom O'Hara, a bank officer with a teenage son playing defense. ''I liked Gramm-Rudman,'' he adds, referring to the balanced-budget legislation the senator had sponsored with former New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman.
But Senator Gramm has dropped out of the race, and his supporters are left to ponder the alternatives. ''[Steve] Forbes is too monodimensional,'' says Mr. O'Hara. ''The flat tax is a scam; it's regressive and it's not going to help balance the budget.'' Pat Buchanan, he continues, is ''just too out there.'' So he thinks he'll go for Dole.
Cathy Miller, a customer-service representative at the Concord Monitor newspaper, says she's narrowed it down to two candidates, either Lamar Alexander or possibly Steve Forbes (though she's been turned off by the negative ads). Her concerns: the size of government and taxes. ''I want the government out of my family,'' she says. ''There are too many laws at the federal level.''
Wayne Komm, an auto-glass installer, strikes a familiar theme on the economy. He and his wife are doing better than ever, he says, but he doesn't think the New Hampshire economy is as strong as people say.
Many people here are afraid they'll lose their jobs and won't get something else that pays as well. This is the kind of concern that Mr. Buchanan is tapping into, with his anti-free-trade, keep-the-jobs-in America stand. But Mr. Komm says he's not a Buchanan guy. He liked Gramm, but now he's undecided.
Granite State rite
New Hampshire has been holding the first presidential-preference primary in the nation since 1952, a quadrennial rite that has become an object of political mythology and, for the locals, an entitlement. With the exception of President Clinton, all presidents since the state's primary began have gotten their start by winning in New Hampshire.
Even with the rise of the Iowa caucuses and preceding straw polls as important tests that can begin narrowing a crowded field of candidates, New Hampshire remains a crucial geographic detour on the way to the Oval Office.
One myth about New Hampshire is that every voter meets the candidates two or three times, asks a question or two, then makes a decision. ''The truth is that about 20 percent meet a candidate,'' says Dayton Duncan, author of ''Grassroots,'' a book on the New Hampshire primaries. ''Compared to the image, that seems not too high.''
But, he adds, for the rest of the country, the rate is about 1 percent. And in New Hampshire, a small state, anyone motivated to press potential presidential flesh doesn't have to go too far to find an event - especially this week.
New Hampshire also breeds an image of Norman Rockwell, homespun values, of flinty New Englanders sitting by the wood stove. The candidates willingly perpetuate this, staging events in diners and country stores.
But it's a state as much buffeted by national challenges as any other state, at least to some degree. Police have to fight drugs. Immigrants are moving into Manchester, New Hampshire's biggest city, causing some locals to grumble. Southern New Hampshire has practically become a suburb of Boston.
''The truth is, they're typical voters here,'' says Mr. Duncan. ''There's nothing in our air or water makes us more earnest or more civic-minded.'' And that, it seems, is why New Hampshire almost always picks the winner.
At Meme's Restaurant in Allenstown, owner John Anderson cheerfully takes a moment to talk primaries. ''I thought about Buchanan - he's the only one who wants to keep good-paying jobs in the country,'' he says. But, in an interesting leap of political logic, adds that he ''thinks he'll stick with Clinton. He tried to get health-care reform through.''
Back at the ice arena, the second game is about to start - featuring Concord High's female hockey phenom, Tara Mounsey, captain of the otherwise all-male team - and the primaries have definitely taken a back seat. But between slapshots, Mike Kapusta bemoans the role of charisma in politics. He liked Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar, whose lackluster campaign leaves Mr. Kapusta wondering whom to support.
After eight years in the state, Kapusta says he doesn't go to political rallies anymore. But he still gets a kick out of politics. His best memory? Running into candidate Bill Clinton in the men's room at the Concord Monitor.