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Live Free and Vote

By David Shribman

PETERBOROUGH, N.H. -- Take the quiet drive from Ossipee to Peterborough of a summer Sunday morning and along the piney roadway you may see these signs and symbols: An older woman in a patterned housedress, her car parked by the side of Route 3, walking stooped across the dangerous road, assuring that a turtle no bigger than her fist reaches the other side safely -- a symbol of the rural grace that still breathes free in New Hampshire. A beefy biker, flip-flops on his feet and no helmet on his head, barreling down the road -- a symbol of the devil-may-care independence of a state that for more than two centuries has vowed to live free or die. A sedan with RSOX on its New Hampshire license plate -- a symbol of the abiding deep loyalties of this region and of the subtle effect of Boston on the state's character, never fully acknowledged, never fully absent.

These are a Sunday slice of the electorate that, some six months from now, will pass over these roads, frosted with snow, to cast their ballots in the first primary of the 2008 political season. In the past they have set in motion political tides that have changed the country. So often have they established the political agenda that two decades ago the state's Republican Party distributed bright green posters that read, simply and at that time fairly accurately: New Hampshire -- Always First, Always Right.

Not always right anymore. Paul Tsongas won the 1992 Democratic primary, Patrick J. Buchanan won the 1996 Republican primary and John S. McCain III won the 2000 Republican primary, and none of their pictures are in the National Portrait Gallery right now. No matter. Still first, mostly right. Also mighty important.

For that reason, there are candidates in one of the notches or along the tiny seacoast or in the exurban sprawl north of the Bay State line pretty much every week, sometimes every day, and they are almost as plentiful as mosquitoes, and sometimes equally irritating. This changes New Hampshire, depriving the state of what the painter Thomas Cole observed after an 1828 hike and what thousands of visitors to the White Mountains have found in nonelection years in the six or so generations that have followed: "unbroken silence reigning throughout the whole region (that make) the scene particularly impressive and sublime."

Indeed the New Hampshire Primary is ever changing, reflecting the way the nation's politics changes every four years, and this year, when the Red Sox sit atop the standings awaiting their customary autumn swoon, is no different. Already (and it's still early; the big burst of campaigning, and the big Sox swoon, come after Labor Day) some hints of the newly emerging political culture are visible:

Get here early. John F. Kennedy visited Manchester's old Carpenter Hotel (long gone, hardly missed) in January of 1960, and that was enough to hand him the New Hampshire primary that sent him en route to the White House. That wouldn't work anymore. The nicer mountain hostelries of the 19th century fill up fast in the summer, and so does the political calendar of the 21st century. There are only so many opportunities to get people's attention, which is why the political season begins earlier and earlier.

Have tons of money. This feature of American political campaigning is remarked upon every election year, in ever-frustrating language about ever-growing sums of cash. A generation ago, presidential candidates quite easily campaigned here with far less than a million dollars. Then again, it used to cost 35 cents to ride the Poma lift up the South Slope at North Conway's Mount Cranmore ski area.

Advertise early. Political figures were aghast -- aghast! -- when Rep. Richard A. Gephardt aired television commercials around Christmastime in the run-up to the 1988 election. But it worked, and the Missouri Democrat won the Iowa caucuses a month later. Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts has been on the air for months up here. He also has a double-digit lead in New Hampshire. Some of that is the value of familiarity; he was on Boston television, avidly watched in this state, during his four years as governor. But much of it is the reinforcement of that familiarity, and the tailoring of his message, on television ads this spring and summer.

Project confidence. This state senses tentativeness and insecurity, and it punishes them decisively and mercilessly. That is why Sen. McCain performed so well in New Hampshire in 2000 and why the presidential campaign of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, so flush with money and bigshots, nearly died here. Mr. McCain prevailed by 19 points. Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York (ahead of Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois by 11 percentage points nationally, according to the latest Washington Post-ABC News Poll) obviously watched this carefully. The people who support her and the crowds that greet her unfailingly speak of her fluency and confidence. Speak softly and carry a big sense of confidence.

Express fealty to the New Hampshire primary and vow to protect its primacy for 2012 and beyond. The primary is an event, not a set of mountains like the Presidential Range or a body of water like Lake Winnipesaukee. It is nonetheless part of the landscape, kind of like Mount Washington, the highest peak in the northeast, the site of the fiercest winds in the world. It is an institution, more so in some ways than the University of New Hampshire.

Three-quarters of a century ago, Sen. George H. Moses had an epiphany about his state. "The thunder is the loudest, the mountains are the grandest and politics the damnedest in New Hampshire!"

I heard the thunder the other morning over on tiny Pleasant Pond in Francestown. I climbed the Champney Falls Trail to the stunning summit of Mount Chocorua, the setting for probably the most Indian legends in all of New England, on a brilliant August day. And I felt the politics -- early, expensive, assertive -- just about everywhere. It's the damnedest place. Always has been.

Copyright 2007 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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