A personal take on politics
New Hampshire voters engaged in electoral process
By Greg Botelho
Merrimack Restaurant in Manchester, New Hampshire, has attracted presidential candidates for years.
MANCHESTER, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Three years out of four, Merrimack Restaurant is your typical down-home diner, a place to crawl in from the cold for coffee and a bite to eat. But everything changes at this Elm Street eatery when the political circus rolls into town.
If the cushioned booths, hearty breakfasts and inviting daily specials aren't enough to lure in candidates, few presidential hopefuls can pass up the chance to hobnob with would-be voters over scrambled eggs, burgers or shepherd's pie in the center of New Hampshire's biggest city.
The Merrimack wait staff has seen '"all of them" or "too many to count" recently and history bears that out. A corner of the 23-year-old restaurant's showcases the smiling faces of Bill Clinton, John McCain, Al Gore, Bob Kerrey, Bill Bradley, Alan Keyes and others.
Yet the Merrimack's transformation every election cycle is hardly unique in the Granite State, where political overtones routinely seep into businesses, libraries and residences along the campaign trail.
As much as tax-free shopping and frigid winters, hands-on interaction with the American electoral system has come to define New Hampshire.
"Here if I want to hear about the issues, or go and see a candidate, I can do it," said John Reed, 23, of Milford. "Politics is a lot more personal."
From an early age, New Hampshirites learn that politics do matter -- and that they matter in the political system.
"It makes it much more real," said Bob Woodward, a professor at the University of New Hampshire. "You have this sense that it does involve you, that it's relevant to your life."
As executive director of hospitality management at the university, David May routinely rubs elbows with White House hopefuls at on-campus events.
In his seven years on the job, he said he knows of only one candidate -- George W. Bush -- who ever thanked the university's food and service staff after a function. May says that kind of personal touch means a lot to him, and makes him appreciate New Hampshire's high political standing.
"The state gets a lot of attention, and it gives residents a wonderful chance to participate in the democratic process," said May, hours before hosting nine candidates and hundreds of spectators, journalists and political staff for a Democratic debate.
And come primary season, every vote counts. On Tuesday, for instance, Wesley Clark ventured to the library in New Castle -- at one-square mile, the smallest town in New Hampshire -- to discuss the environment and other issues.
Clark shares a laugh with his wife Gertrude while on the campaign trail in New Hampshire.
Sixteen students from Georgene Sellinger's eighth-grade homeroom at St. Elizabeth Seton parochial school in Rochester, among others, peppered the former four-star general with questions -- an opportunity few youngsters in other, less politically significant states enjoy.
"Getting to know [the candidates] interests you in politics," said Evan Carbonell, 14, of Rochester, who freely admits that his favorite part of politics is "when they make fun of each other on TV." "If you want a leader, you want to know that person."
A political destination
"Folks in New Hampshire have a keen eye for baloney," said Leslie Gabriel, the head of an upstate New York building inspection company and political activist aiming to oust President Bush. "People here take politics very seriously."
Gabriel's appearance -- dressed like Rocky, with stars-and-stripes shorts, while punching a President Bush-emblazoned blow-up doll outside the Merrimack Restaurant in Manchester -- speaks as loud as his words.
Leslie Gabriel, left, prepares to pound a blow-up bag depicting President Bush in Manchester, New Hampshire.
For the politically inclined like Gabriel, who worked on Gary Hart and Bill Bradley's ill-fated campaigns in 1984 and 2000 respectively, New Hampshire is a prime destination.
A few feet away, students from Tolland High School in Connecticut -- on a field trip to New Hampshire to delve into democracy, and assigned to support John Edwards for a class project -- held signs and chanted in anticipation of a visit by the North Carolina senator.
"The goal of our project is to understand the election process," said Emily Schoenbaum, 18, a Tolland High senior. "We weren't sure what to expect, but it's exciting -- definitely exciting."
And the candidates, at least publicly, share that sentiment. While several hopefuls, including top tier candidates Sen. Joe Lieberman and Clark, have effectively dropped out of Iowa, they all have a presence in New Hampshire.
"I like the people here, and I really love the retail politics," said Clark in a recent interview on CNN's "Crossfire."