ALTON, N.H. -- On a cold, drizzly morning this week, Bill Davies woke up itching for a candidate fix. So he jumped out of bed to get to a 7: 45 a.m. town hall meeting where Sen. John McCain was speaking.
Then he followed the Republican presidential hopeful in the rain to American Legion Post 72 here. By lunch, he had gripped McCain's hand and had looked him in the eye. Twice.
"He showed me the man behind the politician," Davies said. "That's important."
Only in New Hampshire is a candidate's personal touch considered a voter's birthright. And despite some initial skepticism that its pull might be diminished by early primaries in other states, the home of the first primary, on Feb. 1, is perhaps even more influential this year than in the past.
With the primary season front-loaded and the nominations likely to be sewn up early, New Hampshire has become a do-or-die testing ground of the front-runners and their challengers.
As a result, the candidates are pouring more time into door-to-door politicking than many voters here can ever recall. While many Americans seem only mildly engaged in the presidential race, New Hampshire voters are seeing candidates everywhere.
"I think this has become the most significant New Hampshire primary perhaps ever," said Tom Rath, a Concord lawyer and supporter of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas. "New Hampshire, in NCAA terms, has gone from being a regional event to the Final Four."
The candidates know that victory here often comes down to tiny margins because the state is so small. So they go for personal exchanges at Lions Clubs and town meetings and pray that the interaction pays off.
Davies, a 41-year-old systems engineer and father of eight from Gilmanton Ironworks, believes it does. After seeing McCain, he called the candidate "touchable," and swore he saw McCain's eyes well up with tears when he thanked the former Vietnam prisoner of war for his service.
McCain now has Davies' vote.
"Here, you're worried about single digits -- nine voters in Peterborough," said Nick Baldick, the New Hampshire state director for Vice President Al Gore, who has held about 40 meetings in the state so far.
On several trips, the Democratic contender has slept in the homes of key supporters and gone the next day to local forums -- where he has entertained questions on everything from the Congo to UFOs.
New Hampshire's population of 1.2 million may only be roughly that of Baltimore City and County combined, but candidates such as McCain have spent part of nearly every week in the state since Labor Day.
Winning here isn't everything. Patrick J. Buchanan won the 1996 Republican primary in New Hampshire but proved weak elsewhere and never came close to winning the party's nomination. This year, though, candidates hope that a strong showing will prove lasting.
McCain all but qualifies for residency in New Hampshire, having been here 45 days this campaign season. He likes to tell of the man who had visited five of McCain's town hall meetings and had still not committed to the senator.
"Ample testimony to my inability to close the deal," McCain has joked.
If the primary is critical to the country in shaping the field of candidates, it seems equally important to many New Hampshire voters, who have overwhelmed packed gyms and meeting halls during their workdays as much to experience a candidate's aura as to listen to what he has to say.
Plenty of voters don't spice their conversations with mention of "W," as Bush is known. But many others can converse in campaign gossip with the know-how of Washington insiders.
After so many years, they can smell when a presidential hopeful becomes pathetic -- the candidate whose campaign storefront in Manchester is empty at 5 p.m. -- and can identify a candidate's entourage at 50 feet (pressed suits and pre-heart attack stress).
They are spoiled about who delivers their politics: Concord Rotarians, between bites of stuffed chicken at the Cat and Fiddle restaurant Tuesday afternoon, had sniffed that Bush's wife, Laura, gave them a canned speech and that Bush had better show up for pizza as he had promised.
Only Bush has taken heat for too rarely showing up at town halls for freestyle conversations with voters. Most others are making the rounds in person, refuting the notion that retail politics is dying with the rise of huge TV ad campaigns.
"The television ads didn't start any earlier, the candidates are not pouring more money on TV -- instead they are meeting more people and spending more time campaigning here," said Joe Keefe, a Gore supporter and former Democratic party chairman in the state. "There is a lot of interest out there concerning the influence of big money in politics, a lot of concern about campaign finance reform, and New Hampshire is proving to be the perfect antidote to the dominance of money in the political process."
The New Hampshire TV station WMUR is selling less air time to candidates than it did four years ago, a spokesman said, although the candidates recently began buying more spots.
One explanation for that decline -- about 40 ads a day at this time in 1995 compared with 25 to 30 a day now -- may lie in the number of candidates who have quit. Campaigns are also trying to save money for the early March primaries, which include Maryland's.