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updated 1/19/2004 9:44:48 PM ET 2004-01-20T02:44:48

Here’s the deal on the New Hampshire primary: It’s an election where poll numbers change faster than Britney Spears’ mind.

How come? Because voters spend the 14 days before the primary window-shopping for candidates. It’s as if people from places like Manchester, Durham and the other spots where guys like Howard Dean, John Kerry, Wesley Clark and Joseph Lieberman come in from the cold with big plans are all part of a small nation where TV doesn’t exist.

The voters want - and expect - to shake hands, establish eye contact with and cross-examine anybody seeking to be President. New Hampshire residents spend three years and 10 months preparing for the eight weeks when the world of politics revolves around pancake breakfasts and chili suppers where the main dish is a Democrat or a Republican applying for the world’s most important job.

“I’ve never voted for anyone I haven’t danced with,” Diane Zito said the other night at a local rally for Kerry, talking about a primary ritual where candidates dance in ballrooms, classrooms and living rooms, anyplace where more than five voters are found.

Zito is a schoolteacher in Bedford. Her husband, Frank, taught for a quarter-century before retiring a few years ago.

Along with about 150 others, the Zitos showed up at Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 8641 the other night to listen to Kerry. They are undecided about whom to vote for, but both are clear on what they’re looking for in a Democrat.

“Someone who can beat [President] Bush,” Diane Zito announced.

Dolly Harrison stood alongside the Zitos at the back of the hall as Kerry went through a series of inequities and calamities he felt were caused by Republicans. Harrison used to be a Republican. She is a 1958 graduate of Wellesley College, grew up on the blue-blood Main Line of Philadelphia before moving to New Hampshire in 1970 and voted for Bush in 2000.

“But then the Republicans took that far-right turn, and that was it for me,” she was saying. “So I’m out looking and listening to the Democrats. I’ve already heard [Howard] Dean, but now I’m leaning toward Kerry.”

Outside Post 8641, the temperature was 14 degrees. Two young women holding “Kerry for President” signs stood at the edge of the Daniel Webster Highway directing cars to a parking lot.

They were Krista Haagenstad and Kara Andersen. Both are sophomores at St. Olaf College in Minnesota and had come to New Hampshire along with 13 other students to work on a campaign as part of a political science course.

“We could choose the campaign,” Andersen said. “I chose Kerry because of his record and his belief in national service. He’s impressive.”

The event at Post 8641 was organized by the New Hampshire firefighters led by Dave Lang, the union leader. In this state - any state, actually - a serious candidate needs serious people stumping for him, and firefighters are among the most serious anywhere.

“Know what Dean has done for first responders like firefighters and cops?” Lang asked. “Nothing. That’s what.”

It’s easy to knock the process here and in Iowa - a bunch of white people in Day-Glo hats and snowmobiles deciding a nominee.

But the reality produces a better product because there is no distance - no TV commercials, Secret Service security, focus groups or consultants - between an individual’s interest and a candidate’s response to a real live question from an actual human being standing in a hall where democracy is delivered daily.

The New Hampshire primary is to politics what spring training is to baseball. It’s a frozen moment in time where spectators get to lean over the bullpen fence and talk with pros who play a game each fall that is far removed from the lives and issues that deeply affect the fans.

Kerry finished talking, listening and answering questions, and Dolly Harrison walked away with a smile on her face. No longer window-shopping. No longer undecided.

“I just wrote him a check and signed up to work for him,” she said. “I gave him $100 because I think he, more than Dean, can beat George Bush.

“I’m glad I came tonight.”

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