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Tiny, feisty N.H. gets set to speak its piece

To understand New Hampshire's fierce independent streak, pull over at a rest area on Interstate 93 just a few miles from the state Capitol.

Its two buildings offer a mixed message: A "safety rest area" and a state-run liquor store. A big sign says the store sells lottery tickets, so weary motorists have a one-stop opportunity to rest, buy a bottle of scotch and gamble.

Other states go to great lengths to keep alcohol away from drivers, but New Hampshire's philosophy is that people don't need a governmental nanny. It is the only state without a seat belt law and one of only four that does not require motorcycle riders to wear helmets.

Leave people alone, the state says, and they'll generally do the right thing. "We're supposed to take care of ourselves and make our own decisions," said New Hampshire native David Mayhew. "We don't need Big Brother telling us to wear our seat belts."

On Tuesday, this tiny state will once again have an outsized voice in presidential politics when it hosts the nation's first primary election. Don't be surprised if there's a surprise.

Quirkiness is embraced here. The state is filled with contrarians who love an underdog. Gary Hart won in 1984, Pat Buchanan punched his way to victory in 1996 and John McCain rode the "Straight Talk Express" to a win in 2000.

New Hampshire voters "are going to make up their own minds. They are not going to be steamrolled by another state's opinion," says Dayton Duncan, an author, filmmaker and Democratic operative from Walpole.

The state has 1.2-million people _ about half the number in the Tampa Bay area. Most are concentrated in the southern portion of the state. The population is 95 percent white.

Unlike many other northern states, New Hampshire has been growing. Many high-tech companies have located in the state because of its low taxes and proximity to Boston.

Stephen Taylor, the state's agriculture commissioner, says there are three New Hampshires: the urban area in the south, which contains suburbs of Boston where high-tech companies have located; the mountains of the North Country, which depend largely on tourism; and the Connecticut River Valley along the Vermont border, home to agriculture and the cerebral sprawl from Dartmouth College.

The state has spectacular beauty: green mountains, tranquil rivers and 1,300 lakes and ponds. Mayhew said he loves his home in Plymouth because "You've got lakes in your back yard and mountains in your front yard."

The state motto, "Live Free or Die," is emblazoned on license plates and is a core belief for many residents.

The libertarian streak has been around since the 1700s. The state was a haven for smugglers fleeing taxes, according to the Almanac of American Politics, and New Hampshire was one of the first colonies to challenge the British.

Said Taylor: "Going back to colonial times, we've had a distrust of large institutions that rule from afar."

He said people came to the state "to be left alone so they could make money."

The state feistiness was fostered by William Loeb, the owner of the Manchester Union-Leader who often attacked politicians with front-page editorials. Loeb and his newspaper persuaded many lawmakers to "take the pledge" not to enact sales or income taxes. (Instead, the state relies on taxes on business profits, restaurant meals and hotels.)

Because of the long distrust of big government, political power rests with towns rather than the state. Many towns still let residents vote on everything from the police chief's salary to whether to buy a new dump truck.

"You never hear people say, "I'm a New Hampshirer,' Taylor said. "We say, "I'm from Concord.' You define yourself by the view from your back step."

The state's compact size and early presidential primary give residents an opportunity that people in other states rarely have: Anyone can shake hands with the next president.

"It's unlike any other election: the highest stakes _ who is going to be leader of the free world _ fought on the scale of running for a county commission seat in Florida," Taylor says.

Republicans control the governor's office and both houses of the legislature, but much of the electorate doesn't want to choose sides. There are more independent voters (38 percent) than Republicans (37 percent) or Democrats (26 percent). George W. Bush narrowly won the state four years ago, but Bill Clinton trounced Bob Dole here in 1996.

Andy Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire, said the state has one of the lowest rates of church membership because many people don't want to live by a religious doctrine.

The state's leave-me-alone philosophy makes it a perfect place for reclusive author J.D. Salinger. When journalists and fans come snooping near his home in Cornish, his neighbors keep mum.

The state's residents say they relish the freedoms and like that the state doesn't stick its nose in their affairs.

Merle Shaw, a construction worker in Bow, said that unless someone's actions are "going to endanger their neighbor, they are entitled to their privacy."

The state has a high rate of seat belt usage even though the law does not require it, officials say.

John Therriault, a computer programmer in Nashua, said that every time he gets in his car, he and his 10-year-old daughter have a contest to see who can put on their belt the fastest. They don't need a law telling them to do it.

"You really do feel a sense of freedom" he says. " "Live Free or Die' is ingrained in everything."