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It’s the Granite State’s time to shine

Times Staff Writer

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.”

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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?”

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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.

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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.

Four years later, New Hampshire held its initial first-in-the-nation primary. The date was eventually set for the second Tuesday in March, to coincide with the state’s traditional town meeting day.

In 1952, New Hampshire allowed citizens to vote directly for the candidate of their choice, instead of delegates to the national nominating convention. Other states soon followed.

New Hampshire solidified its role as White House gatekeeper in 1968 when Eugene McCarthy, running on an antiwar platform, garnered 42% of the vote in the state Democratic primary. The solid showing contributed to President Lyndon Johnson’s announcement that he would not seek another term.

Suddenly, other states coveted an honor New Hampshire had long kept to itself. In the 1970s, Florida flaunted its warm weather when it tried unsuccessfully to convince both parties that the Southern state should be the site of the first primary.

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The failed power grab still rankles here. “If you can’t walk through New Hampshire on a cold winter day, you’re not fit to serve in Washington,” said Evelyn Marconi, whose Portsmouth chowder house is a frequent candidate stop.

Such intimacy means unscripted exchanges.

In 1976, upstart Jimmy Carter was making the rounds at Robie’s General Store in Hooksett when he approached owner Lloyd Robie, who happened to be hard of hearing. Carter extended his hand, saying, “I’m Jimmy Carter and I’m running for president.”

“Jimmy who?” Robie said. Reporters made the phrase a mantra for Carter’s campaign.

But though officials here promise the ultimate grass-roots access to tomorrow’s president, some residents do feel taken for granted. Anita Jordan said she and her neighbors at a mobile-home park were treated “like second-class citizens,” even by the candidates.

Until supporters of Democrat Barack Obama began knocking on doors not long ago, the 392 families at the Exeter River Mobile Home Park had never been visited by a campaign.

Jordan hopes the 2008 contest will be different. “I’d love it if I could get a candidate to come here,” she said. She looked out her back window, talking quickly, as if warming to the idea.

“I’d have a cookout. I’d mow my lawn. I’d even buy the hot dogs and hamburgers.”

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john.glionna@latimes.com

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Of primary importance

New Hampshire has a rich history of helping make and break presidential plans:

1952: NATO commander Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower has his name placed on the GOP ballot by friends in the state. He never visits during the campaign, but wins and goes on to two terms in the White House. Democratic Sen. Estes Kefauver defeats President Truman, who decides not to run.

1968: Democratic Sen. Eugene McCarthy finishes a solid second to President Lyndon Johnson after campaigning against Johnson’s Vietnam War policies. Johnson bows out of the race.

1972: Democratic front-runner Sen. Edmund Muskie defeats Sen. George McGovern but allegedly cries at a rally in front of the Manchester Union Leader newspaper, reacting to editorial attacks on himself and his wife. Muskie’s campaign falters and McGovern wins the nomination.

1976: Former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter, unknown in the state, wins the primary and subsequently defeats President Ford to win the White House.

1992: Amid allegations of marital infidelity, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton falls well behind Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas in preelection polls. Clinton and his wife, Hillary, go on television to discuss the charges. He finishes second in the primary, labels himself the “comeback kid,” and goes on to win the presidency.

New Hampshire nuggets

* Richard Nixon won the most primaries, with three -- in 1960, 1968 and 1972.

* Two incumbent state governors, Sherman Adams and John H. Sununu, became White House chiefs of staff after serving as primary campaign chairmen.

* Just two candidates have won the presidency without winning the New Hampshire primary: Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

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Sources: State of New Hampshire, New Hampshire Political Library

Graphics reporting by Tom Reinken


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