MANCHESTER, N.H. – Want to size up a candidate for the White House at close range? How about all of them?
Come to New Hampshire (search), where the first-in-the-nation primary is also the last-in-the-campaign chance for most voters to look potential presidents in the eye.
"We're going to see Kerry tonight. We saw Edwards this morning. We saw Clark last week. We saw Lieberman" at a weekend Democratic Party dinner, says Tom Grodt, a resident of nearby Londonderry.
Grodt rattles off the names matter-of-factly — minutes after he, his wife and their two young daughters take in Howard Dean's (search) campaign pitch live at a downtown theater.
That makes five Democratic presidential candidates in one week.
"This is New Hampshire. We have access to the candidates," says Bonnie Reid Grodt in a typical Yankee understatement.
On Wednesday, the race for the Democratic presidential campaign undergoes a dramatic transformation. Instead of one state holding a primary and its voters drawing the undivided attention of all the candidates, seven states will pick delegates Feb. 3.
Candidates who have spent weeks searching out support in places such as Jaffrey and Goffstown will instead fly from South Carolina to Missouri to Arizona, across the time zones on schedules designed to maximize television exposure.
Inevitably, Arizona, a state of 113,998 square miles and 55 pledged delegates to this summer's Democratic National Convention (search), will get far less candidate time than New Hampshire, with 9,350 square miles and 22 pledged delegates.
Outsiders know it, too.
The Hayeks of Hope R.I., traveled to Concord during the day to see for themselves. "I'm leaning Dean, but I like Kerry a lot. I wanted to hear him and see somebody who might be the next president," said Art Hayek, standing on the fringes of a crowd to which Kerry spoke.
Iowa, whose caucuses hold the leadoff spot on the political calendar, was the center of an extraordinary amount of the same sort of personal, small-crowd campaigning, as well.
But it's five times as big as New Hampshire, with population centers several hours and hundreds of miles apart. Plus, two of the major contenders, Sens. Joe Lieberman and retired Gen. Wesley Clark, skipped the state.
No one skips New Hampshire.
Candidates move to New Hampshire.
Lieberman and his wife took up residence at an apartment, and often begin their campaign day by dropping in at a coffee shop to greet potential voters.
Dean, the former governor of Vermont, has made an estimated 63 visits over 83 days in the state over the past few years in pursuit of the nomination.
In the week since the Iowa caucuses, only Dean and Sen. John Edwards among the major contenders have dared leave New Hampshire, one to spend a night at home in Vermont, the other to campaign briefly in South Carolina.
As the primary grows closer, the crowds grow larger, and the appearances more impersonal by New Hampshire standards.
But as recently as last week, Edwards could stop in at Roland's Diner in Nashua and take a personal question from Kyle Fontaine, an electrician from Peterborough. "By the way, my brother's an electrician," Edwards said, reaching for a moment of New Hampshire connectedness.
Not that familiarity necessarily breeds commitment in the state's politics.
Fontaine said afterward he liked Edwards and the answer he gave to his health care question but remained undecided. By then, he'd heard Clark speak twice and Dean once and had Kerry next on his schedule.
"I was born and raised in California and to be able to live in a state where you can see the candidates and ask them questions is really important," says Cherry Brewer, a resident of Manchester and Dean supporter who attended the former governor's speech during the day.
"It's what the process is all about."
"This is really where you see politics in action," agreed Frances Lewy. She first saw Dean speak in the Concord neigborhood of Penacook more than two years ago, when he appeared on behalf of a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.
Grodt and his wife have seen Dean numerous times, including once at a Lions Club in Londonderry. Grodt asked about energy. Dean "gave me a wonderful six- or seven-minute answer. It was very well-thought out," he recalled.
His wife has a memory of a different sort, of an appearance at a garden party many months ago before the weather turned cold.
"The poor guy got stung," she says, remembering how close she was at the time.
"I could see the yellow jacket."