New Hampshire Residents Used to Primary Craziness

Article excerpt

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Like many of its New England neighbors, the Granite State's rolling hills, jagged coastline and colder climate are best suited to those hardy in nature.

But visitors arriving in droves this weekend for Tuesday's primary weren't letting the foot of snow on the ground or near-zero temperatures keep them from the task at hand. Campaigning here is a hardy sport.

Quaint corners of the state are clogged with television- satellite trucks, credentialed news media and their vehicles, laptop- toting bloggers, sign-waving out-of-state volunteers -- and, of course, the candidates.

Hours before the first caucus vote was cast in Iowa on Thursday, Republican John McCain was here, getting a head start. By mid- morning Friday, others joined him: Democrat Barack Obama and Republican Mike Huckabee, to whom Iowans handed victories, and Hillary Clinton and Mitt Romney, coming off defeats instead of as the early front-runners they had been.

Streets are littered with campaign signs, and in Manchester and Portsmouth bands of campaign volunteers formed impromptu rallies hours after the Iowa caucuses ended. It's hard to walk anywhere without bumping into someone connected with a campaign.

Most New Hampshirites take the attention in stride.

"It is our way of life," said the Rev. Mark Ferrin, a Baptist minister in Keene.

Ferrin was heading home from Concord High School, navigating between 4-foot snowbanks lining sidewalks, after listening to Obama, who arrived upbeat with the hope that the appeal he had in Iowa would continue and, ultimately, make him the first black U.S. president.

Ferrin has been an undeclared voter and a registered Democrat since moving to Keene about eight years ago.

"It took me a little while to get used to all of the fuss of a New Hampshire primary. The onslaught of mailings -- sometimes four or five a day hit my mailbox," he said. "Then there are the people and the candidates themselves, coming to the door, and the never- ending radio and television spots.

"Now, well, it is just a regular part of the rhythm of life."

Still, it can be a bit quirky, he said.

"Take the fact that the people in my community actually vote in my church -- talk about no separation of church and state. But at least they had the common sense to have me remove the Bible while people are voting."

With a show of hands at Obama's request, about half of the estimated 2,500 people who packed the high school gymnasium admitted they weren't yet sold on the Illinois senator. Obama quickly dispatched staff members to get their names, numbers and addresses so he could "plead his case" to those voters. The crowd burst into laughter, but he and his aides were serious.

Independents play a powerful role in New Hampshire, where there are more registered independents than Republicans or Democrats. And they can vote for either party Tuesday.

Teacher Leahanne Fenton, 29, said she was "impressed, but not swayed" by Obama and must decide between him and McCain.

If Fergus Cullen had his way, people here wouldn't be scrambling in the bitter cold to prepare for voting in two days.

"I would love to go back to the days when the primary takes place in the second week of March," said Cullen, state chairman of the Republican Party. "Then the process is much more stretched out, there is more time between contests. But it is hard to put that genie back in the bottle."

New Hampshire always holds the nation's first presidential primary, but this will be the earliest voters here have gone to the polls -- "almost a month earlier than we have ever been," Cullen said.

That's because more than a score of states pushed primaries to Feb. 5, the so-called "Super-Duper Tuesday." New Hampshire law requires the state primary "shall take place one week prior to a similar contest. …