MANCHESTER, NH - At the Merrimack Restaurant in downtown Manchester, they take the New Hampshire primary seriously. Just check out the giant mural on the side of the diner.
Sure it depicts a smiling President Bill Clinton, whom New Hampshire famously made the "comeback kid" in 1992.
But it also includes a range of candidates whose presidential aspirations never made it far beyond the Granite State: Democrat Gary Hart (1984's surprise primary winner), Republican Steve Forbes (whose 1996 and 2000 campaigns fizzled here and elsewhere), and Democrat Joe Lieberman (whose "Joe-mentum" was only good enough for fifth place in the state in 2004).
This week, with 18 presidential candidates in town for back-to-back debates, New Hampshire was the center of the political universe again. There was a Washington scene, of course, but Manchester also became a hub for Hollywood B-listers: Joe Pantoliano from "The Sopranos," Tim Daly from "Wings," and Richard Schiff from "The West Wing" were all in town for the debates.
A longer-than-long shot presidential candidate camped out on Elm Street in front of the Merrimack, making his pitch out of his double-parked car. And if you had grabbed a stool at the Merrimack Monday morning, you might have met former senator John Edwards, D-N.C., who made an unannounced visit for coffee.
But something's different about the New Hampshire primary this time around. It's not just the dozens of states that are pushing up their primary, leaving New Hampshire's secretary of state threatening to move the 2008 primary to as early as December 2007 (seriously) to preserve New Hampshire's historic first-in-the-nation primary.
The biggest threat to the small-town feel of New Hampshire campaigning: the popularity of the candidates themselves. At a few early events, overflow crowds have turned town-hall meetings into giant rallies, with no real chance for most voters to look the candidates in the eyes.
"This is unprecedented," said Raymond Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "It is unbelievable."
New Hampshire residents are fiercely defensive about their tradition of voting first, and therein lies much of the charm of the New Hampshire primaries.
"It's our most precious political possession," said Tom Rath, a veteran GOP operative who is supporting former governor Mitt Romney, R-Mass., this year. "It means that there is a time in which every citizen has a real impact on the presidency."
This year, the candidates are splitting their time between more states than ever. Most of the presidential contenders who were in New Hampshire this week got out of town as quickly as they arrived; they had other events to get to, in Iowa, Chicago, Florida, South Carolina, and Washington, DC.
But New Hampshire will still vote be first, Rath said, meaning the state's famously fickle voters will continue to enjoy their outsized influence in choosing the next president.
"We'd do it in August if we had to," he said.