MILFORD, N.H. – The mother of four nodded in agreement with Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards during his hourlong stop at the Boys & Girls Club, all the while knitting a scarf.

To voter Jone LaBombarde, it was just another Tuesday in New Hampshire, where candidates seeking to be the next president of the United States are routinely found shaking hands at coffee shops, chit-chatting on front porches and fielding questions in town squares.

“In New Hampshire, you can hang out with all of them,” said Christine Benson, 58, who came out to a high school gym the previous night for a repeat look at Democrat Barack Obama. “It’s said in a joking way, but in New Hampshire, you don’t vote for someone unless you’ve shaken their hand at least three times.”

Host since 1920 to the nation’s first presidential primary, the state dotted with dairy farms, textile mills and harbor towns beckons candidates who bank on victory catapulting them to their party’s nomination and the White House.

In a bid to turn the campaign trail south, Florida lawmakers moved up the state’s traditionally irrelevant March primary to Jan. 29. But party bosses in four states determined to defend their early primaries and caucuses – New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada – pressured Democratic contenders to swear off campaigning in Florida. The national Democratic party also stepped in, barring Florida delegates from the 2008 convention, while GOP officials took away half of the slate.

New Hampshire voters empathize with Florida – as long as the nation’s fourth largest state doesn’t trample on New Hampshire’s sacred spot in the center of the political universe. The state is so possessive of its status that it has yet to schedule its primary, which could happen as early as next month.

“I can’t blame Florida, but there are folks in this state who are adamant about being first,” said Derek Owen, a farmer with hoary mutton chops who dons a suit for his other job as a state representative. “We’re the Granite State, and that’s pretty solid stuff.”

The rivalry between the Sunshine State and the Granite State dates back to 1971, when Florida moved its primary to the same day. New Hampshire jumped ahead another week, and Florida has lagged ever since.

New Hampshire voters say the state belongs up front by dint of tradition and geography. The state’s size – about one-sixth of Florida, with a population smaller than Broward County’s – makes grassroots campaigning possible, even for presidential hopefuls.

The big-state way of campaigning – the staged rallies, the pricey closed-door fundraisers, the fleeting appearances in front of a media horde – gives way here to personal phone calls and long question-and-answer sessions with voters. Candidates actually apologize when it’s time to leave.

In New Hampshire, candidates act more like they’re running for town council than leader of the free world. Obama urged the audience to fill out “supporter cards” during a stop at a high school gym. “I know I’m shameless, but I’m running for president,” he quipped.

“You are in a different place than most of America to make this judgment,” Edwards told about 200 voters in the Salem High School cafeteria. “Because most of the country will see us in 30-second sound bites. You see us in settings like this, up close, where you actually have a chance to say, “I believe that guy. I trust him.’ Or you don’t.”

Many Florida legislators don’t share that faith in New Hampshire, questioning whether a mostly rural, primarily white state can accurately reflect a nation’s interests.

Still, the questions posed to candidates last week reflected a wide range of concerns: China, care for veterans, aid to Pakistan, free-trade agreements, same-sex civil unions and healthcare. The questions were long, the answers longer.

Vetting the candidates closely is “a tradition, and people are really into it,” said Almisha Readdy, a black woman who stood out in the sea of white faces at an Obama appearance. “If people here had lost interest, I would say we need to be replaced. But look around. There are people making it a priority to be here. They take their personal responsibility seriously.”

Steve Morgan, a 65-year-old retiree who went to see Edwards at the Boys & Girls Club, said, “Believe it or not, I’ll go from NPR to Fox News just to hear the different views.”

Donna Thompson, 42, who moved to New Hampshire from Massachusetts, said she has been surprised by how intensely people screen the candidates.

“I don’t know if Floridians are willing to take that job on,” she said after an Edwards event. “It’s a lot of work. I mean people really think, “We have to go see all these people, and sort through the ideas, and listen to what they’re saying, and make a good choice.”‘

Voters here pride themselves on not being easily swayed by choreographed events, the polls, the slick commercials.

This is the “Live Free or Die state,” where the state’s rebellious history still permeates its government – there is no state income tax or sales tax – and where barriers to political participation are few: People can register to vote as late as Election Day.

The state’s most popular political affiliation is independent, with 44 percent of the voters shunning Democrat and Republican labels. Voters are always in election mode, casting ballots for governor every two years.

The state also boasts the nation’s largest legislature, with 400 members in the House representing a little more than 3,000 constituents each. In contrast, Florida’s 120 representatives represent an average of 150,000 people.

Even the polling place supervisors are elected. Everyone in New Hampshire seems to have a neighbor or relative in public office, if they aren’t elected themselves.

“The idea is to have as many people as possible share in the power of government,” said Secretary of State William Gardner, the man granted sole authority by New Hampshire law to set the date of the primary. “That’s why the shortest distance between citizens and their government is here.”

This is the vibrant political climate that boosted the fortunes of Dwight D. Eisenhower, convinced Lyndon Johnson not to seek reelection and turned Bill Clinton into the “comeback kid” when he finished in second place. In 1976, a little-known peanut farmer Georgia governor named Jimmy Carter made a name for himself in New Hampshire.

“I believe anybody who does well, who comes in first, second or third in these early states, will get a real boost in the other states,” Mitt Romney told reporters before addressing a small group of veterans at a Concord retirement home.

New Hampshire has also voted for many candidates who failed to go the distance. This is the state that voted for the likes of Gary Hart, Paul Tsongas, Pat Buchanan and John McCain.

A bit of New Hampshire lore, that candidates can make up for a shoestring budget with a shoeleather campaign, gets short shrift from the likes of Owen, the farmer-legislator.

“Wrong,” he said, as he milked one of his cows at dawn. “Because money is how you get your face and your word out there. The more money you have, the more ads you can buy.”

That the campaign season generates revenue for New Hampshire media outlets, restaurants, hotels and shopkeepers is unmistakable. Some Florida politicians argue that New Hampshire’s lofty rhetoric about preserving political traditions glosses over its bottom-line incentive.

But a University of New Hampshire study found that the economic impact of the 2000 primary was $264 million, only a fraction of the $42 billion gross state product.

“It only happens every four years,” said Cindy Pariseau, owner of Simply Unforgettable gift shop, adding that moving up New Hampshire’s primary to be first cuts short the amount of money the campaigns spend in the state.

“Although if they do move it up, it might help our Christmas season, because chances are the candidates are going be around,” she said. “They’ve all got to buy gifts, right?”

(c) 2007, The Miami Herald.

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Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-11-17-07 1939EST

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