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It's the Granite State's time to shine

Hanging on (for now) to the first presidential primary, residents are in their element.

September 16, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

MANCHESTER, N.H. — The old adage about never letting 'em see you sweat is something that Kriss Soterion takes quite literally.

The veteran makeup artist has pancaked the faces of numerous presidential candidates, including Pat Buchanan, Rudolph W. Giuliani, Al Gore and Hillary Rodham Clinton. Now business is booming after her recent makeover of Clinton for a televised debate here. Soterion is even marketing a new lipstick, known as -- you guessed it -- Debate.

It's the height of the presidential primary season, and the benefits are trickling down into virtually every corner of this pint-size state. Every four years, little New Hampshire gets a giant say in who will be the next occupant of the White House -- and most of the state loves basking in the national glow.

"It's not just about money," said Soterion, noting that the primary gives folks in New Hampshire "a sense of who we are."

Since 1920, New Hampshire has staked its turf as a White House proving ground with its unique form of one-on-one retail politics. So seriously does it take its role that its Legislature passed a law in 1975 mandating that the Granite State host the first presidential primary vote, following the Iowa caucuses.

This year, however, several states have tried to loosen New Hampshire's headlock on the primary schedule. Michigan has acted to move its primary a week ahead of New Hampshire's, but the final voting days remain very much in flux.

Why, many ask, should a state with barely 1.3 million residents and little ethnic diversity wield so much influence? "We've given New Hampshire the best seat in the house. They've been a national proxy for many years," said Donna Brazile, a veteran Democratic strategist. She says the time has come to move the first primary elsewhere.

But New Hampshire is fighting, not switching, and vows to stay in the pole position no matter what other states do. "This is a place where the little guy has the say," said New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who for decades has decided when to schedule the state primary. "Why would you want to destroy that?"

Politicking here is like a step back in time -- an old black-and-white photograph compared to the colorful frame grabs that follow in most other states. Candidates like Jimmy Carter, Jack Kemp and Bob Kerrey played checkers with a general store owner, and Gary Hart threw an ax at a woodsman convention.

"New Hampshire brings campaigning to a human scale," recalled Hart, a Democrat who ran for president in 1984. "Voters there know their politics. They've opened doors for dark-horse candidates -- that's the beauty of the state."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the Democratic nominee for president in 1988, relished New Hampshire's retail politics. "You're in a lot of living rooms and backyards," he said. "I enjoyed that a hell of a lot more than the post-nomination drill -- up and down on planes giving airport speeches."

New Hampshire's tradition of micro-democracy dates to the 1700s, when town hall meetings originated in New England. Today, the state holds 200 elections at the town and school district levels every year, with races for statewide offices, including governor, every two years.

Per capita, New Hampshire boasts more people who have sought or served in office than any other state. Its Constitution requires one state representative for every 3,000 residents -- currently a 400-member House of Representatives. In California, the equivalent would be a 12,000-member Assembly.

"A political culture was born here and has been nurtured over time," said Michael Chaney, president of the New Hampshire Political Library. "Participation in governing has been in our DNA since the beginning."

Websites here monitor not just whether White House hopefuls have visited the state, but where and how often. A higher percentage volunteers for campaigns than anywhere else. School textbooks instruct fourth-graders to "support and cherish this enduring tradition."

On primary day, roughly 70% of the state's 700,000 registered voters usually show up at the polls, a rate that's twice the national average. In 2004, one in four New Hampshire residents said they had met at least one of the candidates in person.

Residents don't get involved just for the money the campaigns bring to the state. According to a 2000 study, the economic effect of that year's primary was $306 million, a small fraction of the state's gross product of $42 billion.

"People say the primary is a cash cow," said Chaney, "but that's not the case. This is just what we do."

New Hampshire began its run as the first primary state in typical independent Yankee fashion.

Looking for a bigger say in national politics, Stephen Bullock -- a New Hampshire farmer and tax collector turned state representative -- in 1916 introduced a bill that allowed citizens and not party bosses to vote for delegates who would choose a party nominee for president.

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