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CONCORD, N.H. -- The pomp and circumstance that has historically defined the kick-off to presidential primary season here every four years became a full-blown spectacle this fall, one that very likely included the next president of the United States.
As candidates personally paraded to the Statehouse during this year’s filing period, the show included shouts and chants by campaign supporters, boisterous outdoor rallies, members of the press tripping over each other, protesters clamoring to make their message heard, impromptu live music and life advice, contentious exchanges with reporters, and characters from all over the country.
After all, getting on the ballot for New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary isn’t merely a formality. It’s is a ceremony.
One by one, candidates arrived this year at the Statehouse in Concord and made their way up to the second floor, often flanked by loud, cheering supporters, a gaggle of video cameras, and sometimes protesters. Bill Gardner, the long-time secretary of state, greeted the candidate at the door and welcomed them into his packed small office. Members of the media, the candidate’s supporters, and curious onlookers packed Gardner’s office like sardines hours before the candidate arrived to ensure they were there to witness the historic event of a possible next president getting on the ballot in the country’s critical first primary state.
And each candidate is treated the same, regardless of title or treasure. When Donald Trump handed over his required $1,000 cashier’s check, he bragged to those gathered that he has more money than the bank that printed the check. He also told the secretary of state that he’s not used to using cashier’s checks and likes to use personal checks, but Trump was forced to follow the rules.
“It made me feel good that everyone is treated the same,” Gardner said later, recalling the exchange. “That’s the way it is. That’s what it’s all about.”
NBC News was one of the few media outlets present for every major candidate as they filed. Every major presidential candidate made it into the New Hampshire Statehouse to go through the ritual in person, except for Mike Huckabee, who has been focused much more on Iowa than New Hampshire, and who chose to file by mail.
And each candidate added a unique touch to the experience:
Donald Trump held a raucous press conference on the steps of the Statehouse, blasting Marco Rubio and other candidates, after greeting hundreds of charged fans who were eagerly rushing and reaching out to hand him anything to sign.
Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders both held large, celebratory rallies on the lawn outside the capitol, soaking up and celebrating what the moment meant for their campaigns in New Hampshire, a state where both have allocated tremendous attention and resources.
It was Clinton’s fourth time filing in the office with Gardner, after filing for her husband Bill Clinton ahead of his 1992 election and 1996 re-election, and then in 2007 when she ran for president in 2008. As she entered the office strewn with political memorabilia, she looked up with a giant smile as Gardner pointed out photos on the wall of the Clintons from previous elections.
"Sanders arrived with his lawyer and the chairman of the state Democratic Party in tow, as they backed up Sanders' status as a Democrat. "I'm a Democrat and should be on the ballot," Sanders, who has served in the U.S. Senate as an independent, said. His eligibility to appear on the ballot as a Democrat was later affirmed by the New Hampshire Ballot Law Commission.
As Jeb Bush and Rand Paul walked through the secretary of state’s office doors, they were also pointed in the direction of photos of their family members who sought the office before them.
“It didn’t hit me until I got there,” Bush said on his way out of the building. “A lot of history.”
Rand Paul exited outside to an impromptu scene of cheering fans shouting “President Paul! President Paul!” and a local musician who serenaded him with a song about how laws are made.
When Rick Santorum arrived to a somewhat smaller crowd, he glanced at a photo on the wall of the office from the last time he ran in 2012. “It’s good to be back,” he said.
Ted Cruz marveled at the history seeping through the building, quipping, “y’all treat politics like we treat football in Texas.” He echoed the rest of the candidates in supporting the role New Hampshire plays in the presidential nominating process, calling it “absolute lunacy” to suggest that the state’s primary shouldn’t be first.
For Lindsey Graham, submitting his paperwork to get on the ballot in New Hampshire was “a bit emotional,” he said. “I wish my parents were here. I think they are in spirit.” Graham later called his experience with the filing tradition one of the “highlights of my life.”
Ben Carson, who does not campaign in the state nearly as often as other candidates, defended his absence as an issue of “logistics” and “scheduling,” but was greeted by enthusiastic supporters lining the hallways eager to get a glimpse of him in the Granite State.
After Marco Rubio was done getting grilled with questions about his finances, he left and his supporters marched around the halls of the building in a parade with campaign signs and shirts, chanting, “Rubio! Rubio!”
Carly Fiorina was also greeted with an enthusiastic and friendly mass of fans, as supporters wearing bright red-pink shirts from her Super PAC, Carly For America, chanted “Carly! Carly!” as she made her way to Gardner’s office.
John Kasich greeted a local 4th grade class who happened to be touring the building at the time, offering up his life wisdom as they all sat and listened intently. “When you have big dreams, you follow your dreams, okay?” he told them, and continued with a lesson about bullying. “Make sure you don’t leave anybody out in your class. Don’t pick on people, because that really makes people feel badly. So I want you to make me a promise that nobody gets cut out. Everybody’s included, okay?”
Chris Christie had an emotional week when his turn came, gaining widespread praise when a video went viral of him speaking about a friend who died from drug addiction, but also getting eliminated from the prime-time debate stage. “Focus on the things you can control. Don’t worry about the things that you can’t,” he told reporters as he walked out of the building.
Jim Gilmore and George Pataki both filed on days when they knew masses of media would already be present for other candidates – Gilmore when Clinton was there, and Pataki after Bush came through. Perennial lesser-known candidate Vermin Supreme stormed the secretary of state’s office – boot on his head – to submit his filing shortly before Carson was supposed to arrive.
Martin O’Malley was the first major candidate to file for the primary, shortly before Donald Trump and his entourage descended upon the building, and O’Malley wasn’t shy about taking aim at the Republican frontrunner, telling reporters, "I find extremely distasteful and repugnant Donald Trump's racist rants against new American immigrants.”
In all, 58 candidates filed for the New Hampshire primary this year – 30 Republicans and 28 Democrats. Each of them filled out a “Declaration of Candidacy” form and handed in $1,000, either in cash or via a cashier’s check. The $1,000 sum is a paltry number to what is required in other states, like South Carolina where the filing fee is $40,000.
It’s no coincidence that it’s easier to get on the ballot in New Hampshire than it is in other states, Gardner said. “We believe strongly about that because if we are going to have this role at the beginning, we don’t want it to be exclusive. We want it to be that anyone can take a chance and be on the ballot.”
Each candidate forever left their mark on the office as they signed a “Notice to Voters” sheet with a special slogan or a message about what was on their mind. In the middle of the page, in dark black sharpie, was, “Make America Great Again!” an obvious note from Trump. Hillary Clinton signed her name below him, adding, “Fighting for our future.” John Kasich wrote down the state’s motto, “Live Free Or Die,” Bernie Sanders added, "We need a political revolution. Our government belongs to all of us, not just the 1 percent," Marco Rubio wrote his campaign slogan, "A New American Century!" and Carly Fiorina jotted down the words, "Let's take our government back!"
The candidates submitted their paperwork in front of a mass of squeezed-in journalists and a sea of flashing cameras next to the desk of Rep. Stephen Bullock, the New Hampshire state representative that authored the state's first presidential primary law in 1913. Also on the desk was a ballot box from Richmond, where the ballots were cast in the state’s first presidential primary in 1916. Next year marks the 100th anniversary of New Hampshire’s presidential primary.
Gardner also brought Sybil Dupuis, now 82, Bullock’s great-granddaughter, to meet several of the candidates as they signed their paperwork on Bullock’s desk. The primary’s history in her family is “a treasure to me,” she recalled. “I’ve never been a part of all the excitement before.”
The filing period is closed, but its place in the tradition of New Hampshire’s storied presidential primary still sits in a prominent pedestal of American politics.
“Since I’ve been secretary of state, I’ve had the responsibility of maintain the tradition of the New Hampshire primary,” Gardner told NBC after the filing period was over. “We’ve been able to make it to 100 years and we’ll be able to make it after that.”