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The elector's electorate

As Lou D'Allesandro remembers it, his life changed the day he heard then-Democratic Sen. John F. Kennedy speak in a New Hampshire high school gymnasium in 1960, promising a new vision for America.

The same thing happened to Tom Rath in 1964 when, as a student at Dartmouth, he volunteered to help New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller's bid for the Republican presidential nomination and had many opportunities to chat with the candidate.

And Jeanne Shaheen can date her political transformation to the 1976 New Hampshire primary. In her first experience as a campaign volunteer, she helped former Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter win the Democratic presidential nomination.

As another New Hampshire primary approaches on Jan. 27, D'Allesandro, Rath and Shaheen are now prominent members of an elite group of influential New Hampshire residents with vast political experience, whose endorsements and assistance are sought by every new generation of aspiring presidential candidates. In essence, they are among the power brokers in the state's quadrennial first-in-the-nation primary.

And even though these three individuals are older and wiser than when they first became enamored of politics, none seems jaded by the anticipation of another primary or by the knowledge that they have played a major role in selecting the nation's presidents for the past three or four decades.

"I think the eight days between the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary are the best eight days in American politics," says Rath, an energetic 58-year-old with a cherubic face. "It is fun to be in a very confined geographic location when the entire political universe is focused on us. It's the Super Bowl of American politics. And the chance to be a part of that is something I think is a great privilege."

Such enthusiasm is what has made these New Hampshire men and women so important to the fate of presidential hopefuls. Without their commitment, the modern political history of the United States might be an entirely different story.

Historical shapshots

New Hampshire is so proud of its role in choosing American presidents that the walls of many offices, shops and restaurants are adorned with historical photos of past winners of the state's presidential primary.

In the photos, Dwight Eisenhower is riding in an open car; Kennedy has snowflakes in his hair; Carter is smiling and glad-handing; Ronald Reagan is clutching his microphone during a tumultuous debate; Gary Hart is wearing red suspenders and wielding an ax; Sen. John McCain is stepping off his campaign bus, the Straight Talk Express.

In Rath's law office, on Main Street here, his face appears with many former candidates in similar photos hanging on what he calls his "client wall" _ a display intended to impress visitors thinking of hiring him to do their legal work.

But the photos reveal only part of the story of how the primary has shaped this state. Because of the primary, New Hampshire is one of the few places in the United States where many local residents are on a first-name basis with top television network news anchors, where dozens of people receive invitations to the annual White House Christmas parties, and where it is not unusual to get a telephone call from someone prominent in Washington who confides, "I'm thinking of running for president. I want your advice."

According to Shaheen, people with long experience in New Hampshire presidential primaries often refer to themselves as members of the "Class of 1960" if their first campaign was working for Kennedy or the "Class of 1980" if they cut their political teeth on the Reagan campaign.

"If you ask people in New Hampshire "When did you get involved in politics?' you'll find it's always around the presidential primary," she says.

Shaheen, who served three terms as governor of New Hampshire in the 1990s, is, of course, a well-known member of the Class of 1976. Yet her most exciting political experience came in the 1984 Democratic primary, when she engineered Gary Hart's dramatic come-from-behind victory over Walter F. Mondale.

She has since been aligned with former South Dakota senator Bob Kerry and former vice president Al Gore, and this year she's stumping across the state for Sen. John Kerry. The Boston Globe recently pointed to Shaheen, 56, and her husband, Bill, a former federal judge, as the biggest asset of the Kerry campaign.

D'Allesandro, 65, a friendly, self-effacing member of the New Hampshire Senate, is currently making appearances with Sen. John Edwards, whom he frequently compares to his first hero, Kennedy. The list of past presidential candidates he has helped include Gore, President Clinton and Michael Dukakis.

By comparison, Rath, who helped President Bush in 2000, has much less to do this year because the Republican incumbent is unopposed. In addition to Rockefeller, he has also worked for Sen. Lamar Alexander and former senators Bob Dole and Howard Baker.

The approach

After helping Carter in 1976 and 1980, Shaheen has never since had to go looking for a presidential candidate to support. They come to her.

In 1984, for example, Shaheen was approached by Mondale, Sen. Alan Cranston and former Florida governor Reubin Askew. She initially agreed to work for Mondale, but then she met Hart and switched her loyalty to him.

Like Shaheen, most prominent New Hampshire political figures can have their pick of the litter every four years.

D'Allesandro was courted by just about every Democratic presidential hopeful this year before he settled on Edwards. He said he identified with Edwards because both of them come from blue-collar backgrounds, and they were the first persons in their families to attend college.

"Every time I come to New Hampshire with a presidential contender," writes Walter Shapiro in One Car Caravan, a book about the early stages of the current campaign, "a closed meeting with D'Allesandro is an inevitable part of the schedule."

Rath, in fact, says he has already been asked to help one person who is thinking of running for the Republican presidential nomination in November 2008.

"There's always a presidential campaign going on here," Rath observes. "It never stops. If you want presidential politics 24/7, 365 days a year, this is the place to be because there's either a nascent campaign or one that's just ended or one that's going on. . . . The campaign for '08 will start the night of the election in '04."

In other parts of the country, an obscure governor from a small state _ Jimmy Carter, Howard Dean or Bill Clinton _ would have a hard time convincing people to take him seriously when he declares his intention to run for president. But not in New Hampshire.

"People don't laugh when they come up here and say, "I want to run for president,' " Rath says. "We're like a laboratory. People can come up here, they can find their voices. There needs to be a place where this can happen. We accept that sort of obligation, and it's discharged extraordinarily well."

Picking a winner

Just about everyone with experience in the New Hampshire primary knows what it takes to be a winner.

"The ones who are best are able to connect with the voters, one-on-one," says Rath. "This idea of bluntness, which is really a catchword for honest. Even though it's an answer the guy has given 19 times before, there's a freshness and a relationship. It's people who connect well with other people."

Shaheen agrees. "One of the things that makes a good candidate is somebody who listens to people," she says. "I believe that's absolutely critical. Elections are not about candidates, they are about people."

But no consensus exists among these folks as to which candidate has what it takes.

Both Rath and D'Allesandro say Kerry, a wealthy man who has spent two decades in the U.S. Senate, lacks the ability to connect with people.

"Kerry is running a Park Avenue campaign," says D'Allesandro. "Kerry projects an air of entitlement," adds Rath.

Shaheen, of course, disagrees. She contends that Kerry connects with voters every bit as well as Hart did.

"In the 1984 campaign, we used to get that a lot _ that Hart was too cerebral to connect with voters _ that he didn't have charisma," she recalls. "And Hart's response to that was, "Let me win the New Hampshire primary, and then I'll be on the cover of Time, Newsweek and U.S. News & World Report, and then I'll have charisma.' And when he won, he did."

Rath says that the unsuccessful campaign of millionaire publisher Steve Forbes, who came to New Hampshire in 1996 and 2000, is proof that dozens of high-paid consultants will not help a candidate who cannot connect with voters on a personal level.

"Steve Forbes got a bump (in the polls), and then he had to deal with people and he just couldn't do it," Rath says.

As a rule, according to Rath, governors are better presidential candidates than senators.

"Governors have to plow the roads; they have much more a sense of doing things that make a difference in people's lives," Rath says. "Senators, once they get to Washington, they begin to think in terms of corrective legislation and studies. But a governor has got to make decisions daily."

Rath says that although Dean benefits from being a governor, he is not nearly as good at connecting with people as another ex-governor, Bush, was in 2000.

"Bush had what I used to call the "perpetual handshake,' " Rath says. "He would draw huge crowds, and he wouldn't leave until he shook every hand in the room."

Some critics argue that New Hampshire voters are too conservative _ compared with the rest of the country _ to play such a prominent role in selecting the nation's presidents. Rath notes, however, that because it is a small state, it is one of the few places where candidates get to know real people.

"I am always struck when I watch the president's State of the Union speech," he says. "The president will inevitably say, "I met a factory worker in Berlin, N.H., or I was with a mill worker in Manchester, N.H.' I believe the reason those encounters are so indelibly etched in their minds is because those were the last real people they saw on the campaign trail."

Media frenzy

When Carter arrived in New Hampshire in 1975, he had an opportunity to campaign for many weeks before the television crews arrived. Now, says Shaheen, because of 24-hour cable news networks, candidates no longer can hone their skills without intense media coverage.

She thinks that changes in the broadcast and newspaper industry have robbed the New Hampshire primary of some of its spontaneity.

The national press focuses too much on the process, the horse race between the candidates, and too little on the issues that matter to real Americans, says Shaheen.

She notes that many New Hampshire citizens reacted negatively after a December debate among the Democratic candidates in which ABC's Ted Koppel asked mostly "process questions," such as whether Dean could beat Bush and what Gore's endorsement meant for the former Vermont governor.

"I think that was a reflection of how people feel about the coverage they are seeing in some quarters in this race," she says. "People don't care about that stuff. People care about "what are you going to do to help me with my health care, how are you going to get the economy working again, what are you going to do about my Social Security?' "

Rath and D'Allesandro are less critical of the media. D'Allesandro is a former radio talk show host; Rath is a regular on a weekly New Hampshire TV political chat show.

The payoff

In exchange for his help for Clinton during the New Hampshire primary, D'Allesandro was invited to a White House Christmas party during the 1990s. He took his teenage daughter, Christina, with him.

"Mrs. Clinton told her how beautiful her new dress was," D'Allesandro recalls, "and that was the height of her life at that time. It was a wonderful experience."

In fact, New Hampshire political activists get much in return for the assistance they provide to aspiring presidents.

When Shaheen was elected governor in 1996 and when she made her unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate in 2002, she was able to call on out-of-state consultants and contributors she had met during past presidential campaigns. In 2002, Gore agreed to speak at her first fundraiser in Washington, D.C., and Kerry provided advice. Their help will be valuable to her if she runs again for the Senate, as expected.

But the thing that these New Hampshire residents seem to cherish most are the personal relationships they have developed with men and women in power in Washington.

"When Bob Dole comes up here, he'll say "drive me for the day,' and we'll just talk, not as majority leader and driver, but as friends," says Rath. "And when we're in a crowd, and President Bush picks me out and asks, "how are we doing?' and talks baseball with me, that's pretty special. It makes you proud, and that's the real reward here."