updated 5/7/2007 3:26:35 PM ET 2007-05-07T19:26:35

If you want to chat with a presidential candidate or grill another on a pet issue, go see John McCain, John Edwards or one of the underdogs.

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Up close and personal with Rudy Giuliani or Hillary Rodham Clinton might be tougher. Both travel with security and aides who sometimes keep voters - and the media - at bay.

Some of the top-tier contenders - celebrities in their own right - restrict the chances voters get to interact with them. It's the opposite for the lesser-knowns; voters can walk up and shoot the breeze.

"People want to be exposed to the candidates, and they make up their minds on their encounters with the candidates," says McCain, a Republican whose preference for a question-and-answer style makes him perhaps the most open of the six top-tier GOP and Democratic hopefuls.


House parties fading away
Over the years, voters in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina - the first three states to hold nominating contests - have gotten used to candidates devoting much of their campaign schedules to a heavy dose of personal politicking.

"What better way to get to know someone than to look them in the eye. You get a better sense of the character," said Ann Mirageas, a co-owner of the 107-year-old Blake's Restaurants and Creamery in New Hampshire, where presidential wannabes have been known to drop in on the lunch crowd at the company's three locations.

Small, intimate gatherings called "house parties" used to be the norm for the front-runners and the long-shots alike in early primary states.

But 2008 election is turning out to be different.

The nomination fights are wide open with a cast of candidates who have varying styles and prominence that combined dictate just how much interaction they have with voters and the media.

More earlier primaries cut back on contact
Another factor likely to make the up-close-and-personal campaigning even more short-lived: Several states have moved their primaries earlier in the year, creating a de facto national primary day Feb. 5. To reach greater numbers of voters in several states, candidates likely will rely on advertising rather than one-on-one campaigning.

"We have a plan for that. Did you ever see the movie 'Dave?' We're going to get a couple of body doubles (and) send them different places," Giuliani recently quipped to reporters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

Openness carries risks, particularly in the era of YouTube.

McCain made a misstep recently in South Carolina, when a voter asked him about military action against Iran. Known for a quirky sense of humor, McCain initially responded with a riff on the surf-rocker classic "Barbara Ann," calling it "Bomb Iran." The attempt at levity dogged him for weeks.

On the other hand, frequent interaction can provide candidates more opportunities to show their personal sides in an era when like-ability is equally as important as elect-ability.

"If I were a casting agent, I'd cast you as president. You look like the president," a man at a Rotary Club meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., told Republican Mitt Romney recently. "You say that to all the guys," the candidate joked, drawing laughs from the crowd.

Tougher gets
Overall, the most famous candidates tend to be shielded more from the public than their rivals by circumstance and, perhaps, design.

  • Giuliani travels with personal security that usually includes two people. Unlike other Republicans, he has held only a few town-hall meetings and he doesn't always take questions after speeches. On Friday in Iowa, his aides stood in the way of reporters trying to question him about the previous night's debate. Giuliani does greet people as he comes and goes from events, but his crew also has been known to whisk him away quickly. He recently has sought to make himself more accessible.
  • Clinton, by virtue of her former first lady status, travels with a full Secret Service detail. The New York senator usually has 10 or more aides. Combined, that entourage restricts her availability to voters and reporters alike. Still, she has held fairly large question-and-answer sessions and speaks at smaller venues. The Democrat spends a lot of time in private meetings with local elected officials and other power brokers.
  • Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., last week received Secret Service protection at his request, the earliest ever for a presidential candidate. In Iowa on Sunday, a handful of agents watched as Obama lingered after his speech, signing books and shaking hands. He frequently draws crowds in the thousands.

Candidates usually are eager for media interviews, but Clinton, Obama, and, to some extent, Giuliani have granted little time to national political reporters. Instead, they have primarily granted interviews to local reporters in states where they are campaigning, which elevates their visibility.

Up close and personal
For other top-tier candidates, openness has been a hallmark.

  • McCain, a four-term Arizona senator, became known in 2000 for a freewheeling style that allows him to mix it up with voters - and reporters - everywhere he goes. He has resurrected his Straight Talk Express bus and his several town-hall meetings a day.
  • Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, also has tried to be open. After appearances, the Republican usually tries to take questions from voters and linger as time allows. He often meets privately with groups of around 30 people, and has held a handful of "Ask Mitt Anything" events. Aides say more are planned.
  • In his second White House run, Edwards has tried to stick to the campaign style that he honed in 2004, wading into audiences after speeches. The former North Carolina senator and 2004 vice presidential nominee is drawing bigger crowds this time around, but he offers plenty of face time and is known to stick around events until the crowd thins.

The lesser-known candidates are seeking to earn a spot in the top echelon the time-tested way - by always being available.

Few barriers exist in getting close to Democratic Sens. Joe Biden of Delaware and Chris Dodd of Connecticut, as well as New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson. The same is true for the Republicans, such as Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and former Govs. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas and Tommy Thompson of Wisconsin.

All travel with only a few aides, typically hold events in small venues and eagerly talk to anyone who will listen.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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