Story Highlights• Granite State is home to the "first in the nation" presidential primary
• Primary victories helped Carter in 1976, Reagan in 1980
• New Hampshire can also derail campaigns, as Johnson discovered in 1968
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MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Even with other states jostling to counter its prime position on the presidential nomination calendar, New Hampshire is holding strong to its traditional, hands-on leading role in the political process.
The Granite State has long treasured its status as home to the "first in the nation" presidential primary, its importance certified when absentee candidate Dwight Eisenhower won the state's Republican race in 1952 to set the stage for his national victory.
In 1976, former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter emerged from national obscurity to win the state's Democratic primary. A New Hampshire win similarly propelled Ronald Reagan during his 1980 presidential run.
New Hampshire used to boast that no candidate had won the presidency without first winning New Hampshire. But in 1992, then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton placed second to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas in the Democratic primary.
That year's race still helped Clinton, who weathered accusations of draft dodging and philandering to score a stronger-than-expected showing and led him to call himself "The Comeback Kid."
"New Hampshire matters -- a lot," CNN's Bill Schneider said in a recent analysis. "Voters can assess the candidates face to face."
That personal connection between voters and candidates helps set New Hampshire apart, according to Granite State residents who have come to expect interactions with aspiring politicians.
"Usually we've done a little homework on their records, so we can ask them questions and challenge them," said Margaret Ives. "So it makes a good training ground for the candidates."
Nowhere is that give-and-take more evident than at the Merrimack Restaurant, located in downtown Manchester.
Dozens of candidates have hobnobbed with voters at this diner and political institution since its founding 27 years ago. Its walls feature photos of Clinton, Al Gore, John McCain, Gary Hart, Bill Bradley and many other White House hopefuls.
"We've been very privileged," said restaurant owner Connie Farr. "It's not every day that you get to shake hands or sit down and have a bowl of soup or a cheeseburger with the president of the United States."
But just as New Hampshire can be a gateway to the presidency, it is known just as much for derailing campaigns.
In 1968, a disappointing finish by President Lyndon Johnson -- he earned 50 percent of the vote, but still won fewer statewide delegates than Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy -- contributed to his decision not to seek re-election.
Four years later, Democratic frontrunner Ed Muskie, a senator from Maine, saw his political fortunes fall despite winning the state's primary by 9 percentage points over South Dakota Sen. George McGovern.
The media rebuked Muskie for not winning his neighboring state more convincingly and for tearing up in the snow while attacking a newspaper publisher for criticizing his wife.
But winning New Hampshire is no guarantee of nationwide success. McCain, an Arizona senator, routed then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush by 19 percentage points in 2000 -- but still lost the nomination.
CNN's Dana Bash contributed to this report.