'Tis the Season for Presidential Politics in New Hampshire

The holidays are around the corner, but at the Merrimack Restaurant in Manchester, N.H., talk is already turning to politics.

The 2008 presidential hopefuls from both parties -- those who admit their White House aspirations and those who do not -- are already making their pilgrimages to the state, home of the nation's first presidential primary.

"They just take over the restaurant, usually a year before the election. This year it seems like it's going to be two years," said Connie Farr, co-owner of the Merrimack. "We've been here 25 years, and every four years, this place is not ours. It's the media's and the politicians'."

This weekend, the buzz at Merrimack is about Barack Obama, the Democratic senator from Illinois who already has achieved rock star status within his party.

"Everyone's talking about Obama," Farr said. "Even I want to hear him speak."

The senator is making his first visit to New Hampshire, where he is playing to sold-out crowds -- 1,500 people at a Democratic victory rally on Sunday evening and 750 at a book signing earlier in the day.

Tom Holbrook, co-owner of the RiverRun Bookstore, which is sponsoring the book signing, said, "We came in and had 30 phone messages and 100 e-mails, so once we got through those, [the tickets] were pretty much gone."

Holbrook, who is also the local bookstore's only full-time employee, said he will have 900 copies of Obama's new book, "The Audacity of Hope," on hand for the signing.

"It was selling very well even before this happened, but now everyone is asking about it," he said.

Eight Democrats and nine Republicans have already come through the state. Officials for both parties say that is a lot of political activity this early in the election cycle, even in New Hampshire. The reason, they say, is that the race is wide open in both parties.

Political watchers say Obama is benefitting from an early surge of political excitement among Democrats, following their victory in the 2006 midterms.

"I think Dean sort of had this excitement, but closer to the election," Holbrook said. "New Hampshire is jaded, so the fact that people are this excited says something."

"It is a big deal," said ABC political reporter David Chalian. "Not every candidate could get 1,500 people."

But Chalian also warned that it is far too early to think Obama's warm welcome means he is headed for the Democratic nomination.

"He is a bit of a rock star, but he is totally untested," Chalian said. "He has had nothing but glowing press in his short career. When he takes his first tumble, how will he handle that?"

New Hampshire holds the nation's first presidential primary, traditionally taking place just after the Iowa caucus. But other states are poaching on New Hampshire's turf. This year, the Nevada caucus will come between Iowa and the New Hampshire primary. California, Florida, and Michigan are also pushing to hold their primaries as soon after the New Hampshire election as possible.

"Another reason why these candidates are starting earlier is that they're going to have to go to a lot of different places," Strand said.

But New Hampshire is still New Hampshire.

"It will be the first primary of the season, and it's stature will not be diminished," Chalian said. "It has always been important. It will continue to be important."

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