CONCORD, N.H. – While Iowa offers the first caucuses in the nation and South Carolina measures the pulse of the South, New Hampshirites take special pride in their first-in-the-nation primary, and have already been gearing up for the state's unofficial sporting day, scheduled for Jan. 27, 2004.
The New Hampshire presidential primary has been the first in the nation since 1952, and from then through 1992, no candidate was elected president without first securing a victory in the Granite State (search). [Bill Clinton placed second in the 1992 Democratic primary]
Nearly 70 percent of the state's one million people turn out to vote in the primaries, a number that keeps presidential hopefuls on their toes and locals preparing the state to host its so-called "cottage industry."
Presidential politics is so much a part of life here that the New Hampshire Museum of State History has an closely-guarded exhibit on presidential primaries.
"[Voters] know that this is the chance for the candidates to say something in this state that is broadcast nationally," said Michael Chaney, the museum's curator as well as director of the New Hampshire Political Library (search).
"We've been doing it so long — we've been doing it for over 50 years now — that people take it so seriously," said Kathy Sullivan, New Hampshire Democratic Party chairwoman. "You know the old story that 'I can't tell you who I'm going to vote for because I've only met each of them three times?' That's New Hampshire."
New Hampshire is also the scene of much street-corner political activism. In random spots statewide, special interests have already been stalking candidates, pushing their agendas.
"Running for president? Health care better be a priority," reads a sign printed by the organization New Hampshire for Health Care (search). Dozens of other groups also put up notices around the state.
"In New Hampshire, it's unique. It's the first-in-the-nation primary, and we have the opportunity to talk to presidential candidates one-on-one. It's a great part about New Hampshire," said Matt Burgess of New Hampshire for Health Care.
Former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (search) and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry (search), both from neighboring states, have already been locked in a classic New Hampshire bare-knuckle brawl, trading insults and misrepresentations of one another's positions.
The latest poll gave Kerry a 26-19 percentage-point edge in the state over Dean. Missouri Rep. Dick Gephardt (search) and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman (search) each trailed at 12 percent. The rest of the nine candidates didn't break double digits.
Kerry's lead was tenuous, however, according to one pollster who said the senator's early momentum might wane because of his prostate surgery and on-again-off-again criticism of President Bush on Iraq.
"John Kerry has a lead, not a comfortable lead. He's worked hard for it, but it's sort of stalled. First with his surgery, than with the war sort of nipping at his heels," said pollster Dick Bennett, adding that at in late May, Dean was the only one who could topple Kerry.
Fox News' Carl Cameron contributed to this report.