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Hot politics on cold days

By CNN's Richard Quest

CNN's Richard Quest
CNN's Richard Quest

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Stay with CNN-USA for frequent updates and live coverage of campaign news leading up to Tuesday's New Hampshire presidential primary.
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• The Candidates: Bush | Kerry
Richard Quest
America Votes 2004

MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Subjecting oneself to the snowy, frigid rigors of winter in New Hampshire -- not to mention the ritual abuse and humiliation that comes with running for elected office -- is a pastime only for the hardy.

Residents of the Granite State, as it is called, are old hands at this process. By law New Hampshire holds the first primary of the U.S. presidential election season -- which is why Iowa, which voted earlier this week, held caucuses instead of a primary.

Voters here take New Hampshire's nickname literally, proudly claiming their independent nature and willingness to go head-to-head with the candidates who parade through the state.

This year there is no shortage of candidates willing to go through this electoral baptism by fire and ice. Seven men are running for the Democratic presidential nomination. None has arrived here unscathed from the bruising personal battles of Iowa.

The people you meet on Elm Street agree that New Hampshire's size (41st among the 50 states) and small population (46th) make it ideally suited for this early primary process.

The candidates are all in the state at the same time, crossing paths and meeting on the stump or in television studios and debates. Thousands of supporters are bused in -- totally out of proportion to the size of the state -- to stand for hours in massed ranks in the bitter cold, entreating passing motorists at street corners to honk their horns to show support.

Here, the candidates are tested like nowhere else, coming face to face with voters hour after hour in meetings, rallies and debates. This is grass-roots democracy.

And if later in the process they find themselves spread hither and thither in different states, talking to voters only on television, here they are real live politicians going about modern-day politics using old-fashioned tools: stump speeches, hokey fund raisers, dinners in diners.

And when you have a truly competitive race, as the Democrats are facing this year, then you have a real hothouse of politics.

The people here are reveling in it. They may huff and puff at the media circus, as reporters constantly ask their views on this or that candidate. But they know that after next Tuesday's vote, no one will care. New Hampshire, with its four Electoral College votes, will virtually disappear from the national political radar.

The only question now on everyone's mind here is who will win the primary. Will New Hampshire Democrats follow Iowa's lead and anoint John Kerry? Or will Howard Dean make a strong rally? Or will John Edwards or Wesley Clark poke their heads across the winning line?

It is only a shame this has to take place in the conditions of mid-winter. The weather forecaster on the local television station was almost gleeful as he described the forecast for this weekend as frigid.

But even that is seen as a trump card in New Hampshire. Character-building they would call it. After all, if you can't stand the cold of New Hampshire, how on earth will you stand the heat of the White House?

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