MANCHESTER, N.H. — John McCain is sweating. He has just downed an entire bowl of three-alarm chili and half a bottle of fizzy water.
Twenty Manchester firefighters are lunching with the Republican presidential hopeful at a long table in the central station's glassed kitchen, called the fishbowl. It would be a cozy respite from the freezing cold if not for 100 reporters crammed in a corner, staring.
With the nation's first primary on Tuesday drawing ever closer, McCain is shopping for votes the New Hampshire way--one at a time. The senator from Arizona puts down his spoon and asks in a low purr, any questions?
"I've got one," Firefighter Mike Lawrence pipes up. "How do you like . . ."
The room falls silent. The cameras zoom in for tonight's sound bite. How does he like--what? The flat tax? Russia's new president? The threatened deportation of the little Cuban boy?
"How do you like . . . the chili?"
Therein lies the essence of New Hampshire, where a citizen's sway is off the scales and the ratio of people to political clout is wildly out of proportion. With the Iowa caucuses out of the way and less than a week to go before New Hampshire's all-important contest, this tiny state of 1.2 million--one-thirtieth the population of California and roughly the size of San Diego proper--has assumed its place at the center of U.S. politics.
No candidate since 1952 has won the White House without first winning his party's primary in the Granite State--except in 1992, when next-door-neighbor Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts beat Bill Clinton. ("An aberration," one local insisted, "and everyone should just forget it.")
It is here that working-class people have regularly humbled political aristocrats, creating a searing photo album of electoral gaffes: Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander flubbing a question on the price of milk. Maine Sen. Edmund Muskie shedding a tear (or was that just a melting snowflake?) over a newspaper attack on his wife. Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. exaggerating his law school performance.
So many presidential wannabes have paraded through the nation's sixth-smallest state that the novelty wore off years ago. To New Hampshirites, the quadrennial procession is a call to duty. So they drive for miles to town hall meetings and campaign stops, dropping their Rs and firing the sorts of questions voters in Kansas or California never get the chance to ask.
This is the real fishbowl.
"Where did yah go on vacation? What's yah favorite doughnut? What kind of cah do you drive?"--they want to know, less interested in the answer than the way the response is delivered.
"You can't come into New Hampshire in an imperial way," warns Secretary of State Bill Gardner. "You've gutta come in as a regular person, a candidate who goes into the living rooms. That's the way it's done he-yah."
If the rest of the country learns its politics from television, New Hampshire learns it from kitchen coffees and rallies at the high school gym. Voters get close--close enough to notice that McCain could use a haircut, that George W. Bush doesn't always look you straight in the eye, that Al Gore has a big bald spot in the back.
"Bush's father was president, so he thinks he has it hands down," firefighter Danny Goonan says, noting that it took a while before the Texas governor started paying homage to the state. "A lot of people don't like that attitude here."
Evidently not. In the rest of the nation, Bush is the runaway favorite among Republicans. In New Hampshire, he and McCain are neck-and-neck.
It would be easier to find a dinosaur in the state capital of Concord than a voter who hasn't shaken the hand of a presidential candidate; according to a recent state survey, 1 in 5 has. If you haven't met a candidate in New Hampshire, it's because you didn't want to.
A win in New Hampshire, or even a good showing, can make a front-runner invincible and lift a dark horse from obscurity. Which helps explain why candidates shamelessly pander for the affections of its voters.
When Linda Kaiser of Amherst accidentally ran over the family's black sheep dog while rushing out to pick up ice for a meet-and-greet last summer, then-GOP candidate John R. Kasich, an Ohio congressman, stayed for the backyard burial. In 1996, Republican candidate Steve Forbes was so eager for weekend coverage by New Hampshire's only statewide television outlet, he offered to have one of his daughters baby-sit for the station's chief political correspondent.
It is the sort of personal attention New Hampshire has come to expect.
As the old saw goes:
Q: Have yah made up yah mind yet?
A: Nope. I've only met the candidate three times.
N.H.: One of a Kind