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Inside Politics

Underdogs hope to use New Hampshire to break through

Story Highlights

• Presidential candidate addressed New Hampshire Democrats Saturday
• Party's "rock stars" -- Clinton, Obama, and Edwards -- did not address convention
• Some candidates hope "grass roots" campaigns will lead to upset
By Sasha Johnson
CNN Senior Political Producer
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CONCORD, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Every presidential candidate sees New Hampshire as a critical state, but for Democratic candidates looking a breakthrough, the Granite State is the political land of hope and possibility.

"New Hampshire voters are open, they're keeping their power dry," New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson told reporters in Concord, New Hampshire, Saturday morning. "They take their first-in-the-nation seriously and they want to see every candidate up front."

The chance to shake one more set of New Hampshire hands and make one more first impression pushed several presidential candidates to spend the first half of Saturday in Concord at the state's Democratic Party convention before flying out to Iowa for an evening political dinner.

"New Hampshire of course gives us an opportunity -- not only for those of us who may not be as well known or as well heeled to be heard -- but, more importantly in many ways, this state and Iowa and other small states insist on certain answers, insist on clarity and boldness in responding to the issues of our day," Connecticut Sen. Chris Dodd, another Democratic presidential aspirant, told the roughly 800 assembled delegates and guests. (Watch how candidates hope to use the debates to shake up the race Video)

Dodd and Richardson were joined at the state convention by Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio and former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel.

Missing from Saturday's convention were the "rock stars" of the Democratic field -- Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and former North Carolina Senator John Edwards all sent surrogates in their place.

"We shouldn't just elect rock stars" said Richardson promising a "grassroots upset" that he will pull off through aggressive retail politics. "I go person-to-person, I don't go to gyms with thousands of people. I go straight to the voters in their homes and that's how I'm going to win in Iowa and New Hampshire."

Candidates like Richardson, who held a 30-person Manchester house party and walked the downtown streets here Saturday afternoon, are banking that they can win over Granite State voters one by one.

Unlike Obama and Clinton who draw crowds in the hundreds and sometimes thousands, Richardson and the other candidates in the field can still walk into a diner and have lunch, take questions and press the flesh. But even that isn't done as much as it used to be.

"We're still trying to get used to the new politics in New Hampshire and by that I mean that retail politicking, as it used to be known, has to be done differently," said Kevin Landrigan of the Nashua Telegraph. "With the crush of media and certainly the early attention of the primaries ... it's hard to have the quaint very small intimate gatherings."

The retail politics at its finest

At the state convention in Concord, intimate wasn't the mood the presidential campaigns were going for.

Attendees were bombarded by eager campaign workers and volunteers clogging the driveways outside Rundlett Middle School holding yard signs of all sizes and yelling loudly. Two young boys on skateboards rolled up and down the road carrying a "Hillary Clinton" billboard they could barely hold.

Camp Clinton said they began their blizzard of sign visibility at 7:30 in the morning, two hours before the event started.

The Edwards supporters attempted to egg on the Obama group screaming: "We have policy you have what?" Camp Obama screamed in unison: "Obama!"

Quietly standing in the midst of all this were several Richardson and Dodd supporters politely holding their signs and waving. Asked about the subdued approach, the Richardson contingent said they were employing the "subtle but strong" tactic.

Dennis Kucinich's band of supporters had musical accompaniment -- a tie-dye clad Jim Giddings of Greenville, New Hampshire, on the recorder. Kucinich is the "one candidate" who is really "right on the war and health care," he said.

Inside, many of the party faithful who milled about the steamy gym sported candidate stickers -- but that didn't mean they were necessarily off the market. "I'm dedicated to Obama," Kit Cornell of Exeter, New Hampshire, said after turning away a Clinton staffer who wanted to put her on a mailing list. "Unless or until he disappoints me or someone else inspires me."

Even though Senator Clinton wasn't at the event in the flesh, her name was everywhere. In addition to overwhelming signage, her staff passed out paper fans to the sweltering Democrats that read "I'm a Hillary fan."

"That's good," admitted a rival campaign aide as he sat sweating in the heat.


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