MANCHESTER, N.H. -- When President Clinton flew in the other day, he found all the trappings of a full-scale presidential campaign -- placard-waving fans at the airport, enthusiastic audiences calling for ''four more years,'' the usual clutch of reporters and camera crews.
The Clinton-Gore campaign has had an operation here for three months manned by two dozen full-time staffers, half of them paid the campaign, the others ''volunteers'' otherwise financed. There are six field offices, and more than 4,000 activists have signed on to a statewide steering committee. College students are being bused in from Vermont and Massachusetts on weekends to distribute 200,000 pieces of campaign literature. It is an operation that several of the Republican presidential candidates would be happy to duplicate.
What makes all this so curious, of course, is the fact that although there will be 21 names of Democratic candidates on the February 20 primary ballot, the president has essentially no opposition. The former mayor of Buffalo is not a serious threat even if some conservative Democrats are disillusioned with Mr. Clinton.
Nor does it make much sense from the standpoint of the general election campaign. If this were California, you might argue that the Clinton-Gore campaign is laying the groundwork to compete for those 54 electoral votes. But New Hampshire has only four electoral votes and has voted consistently Republican since 1964, except in 1992 when Clinton won on the strength of votes drained away from George Bush by Ross Perot.
Jake Siewert, the Clinton-Gore spokesman here, says the operation was set up ''to make sure we have a presence here'' while all the attention is being focused on the competition among the Republicans.
Ann Lewis, the deputy campaign manager in Washington, says the New Hampshire apparatus and a similar one in Iowa were set up because ''these are the first states in the campaign for public opinion'' nationally and they are trying to build ''an enthusiastic, well-informed base'' of support.
Start of ''the comeback kid''
Another factor clearly is Mr. Clinton's special attachment to the state in which he salvaged his campaign four years ago, when he declared himself ''the comeback kid'' after running second to Paul Tsongas in the primary and shaking off the Gennifer Flowers episode. He has returned to the state several times since 1992 and plans another visit three days before the primary. Hillary Clinton and both Al and Tipper Gore also have campaigned here.
But this is a very different campaign with a very different context than the one in which the 1992 election was conducted.
President Clinton is going to be judged in November not by anything he does on the stump in February but by his record of four years in the White House and by the judgment voters make of his personal strengths and weaknesses as president and national leader.
At the moment, Mr. Clinton has every reason to be sanguine. Opinion polls show him now leading all the potential Republican candidates by comfortable margins. Even here in Republican New Hampshire, the president is well ahead of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.
Meanwhile, the Republicans are embroiled in a mudslinging battle royal in which their attacks on Clinton and the Democrats are being drowned out by their attacks on one another. The story du jour is Steve Forbes cutting up Bob Dole and vice versa.
But the Republicans eventually will settle on a nominee and turn their attention fully to their case against the president. And whatever happens in New Hampshire will be long forgotten by the time the leaves start turning in the fall.
And when that point is reached, someone may wonder about all this effort by the Clinton campaign in an uncontested primary. Maybe the answer is that, thanks to the public financing system in place now, the president and his handlers have so much money they don't know what to do with it.
Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.