CONCORD, N.H. -- The New Hampshire presidential primary is, of course, a serious exercise. But it has its moments, like the time the candidate pulled out a rubber rat and waved it at the cameras during a televised debate.
That happened in 1972. The candidate was a self-described urban activist from Hartford named Ned Coll who used the rat to underline his point that there were still a lot of problems in U.S. cities.
That episode also makes a central point about the presidential primary elections here: Because they are first on the schedule every four years, they attract huge media attention. And all those reporters and cameras, in turn, attract everyone with a story to tell.
This is the week you see the fringe candidates in bizarre costumes marching up and down Elm Street in Manchester or strutting around in front of the statehouse here in search of a television crew. This is the week when the hotels, restaurants and bars are packed and they run out of rental cars at the airport. This is the week when the main streets are lined with hundreds of college students waving posters for their candidates.
Such trappings aside, the New Hampshire primary campaign serves a valuable political purpose. Because the campaign lasts so long, the candidates tend to reveal themselves to the media and the voters.
Political reporters learned something about tenacity from Gov. George W. Romney of Michigan when he was competing against Richard Nixon for the Republican nomination in 1968. At a bowling alley one day, Romney tried his hand at candlepins, which are slim and sometimes hard to hit with the small bowling balls used in the game.
But Romney went to ludicrous lengths -- knocking down nine of the 10 pins with his first two balls, then requiring 31 more balls to hit the 10th. While the cameras rolled and the reporters gaped in amazement, the gritty governor kept firing one ball after another until he finally cleared that last pin and turned around grinning broadly at the derisive cheers of the onlookers.
The media and public learned a more valuable lesson some years later from Ronald Reagan. After being upset by George Bush in the Iowa caucuses, Reagan had the luxury of 29 days before the primary here and spent the entire month stumping the state. His intensity dissolved doubts about his energy and commitment raised by his loss in Iowa, and he won easily.
Reagan nailed down his success in Nashua a few days before the primary when he tried to invite several other candidates to join him and Bush in what had been advertised as a two-man debate. Bush balked, and when Reagan persisted, the moderator ordered his microphone turned off -- to which Reagan replied with a line every New Hampshire political junkie knows well, "I paid for this microphone, Mr. Green."
(It was not until several months later that we learned Reagan was repeating a line from an old movie. And the moderator was not "Mr. Green" but Jon Breen, then managing editor of the Nashua Telegraph.)
The media corps covering the primary has reached huge proportions. Even minor candidates can attract dozens of reporters and camera crews from Japan and Europe as well as every cable channel that pretends to cover the news.
The reporters make up a kind of informal lobby for the New Hampshire primary. It is easy to cover because the state is so compact. Every town of any population except one -- Berlin, a papermaking center in the far north that has to be visited only once per campaign -- is within an hour or so of Concord and Manchester.
New Hampshireites are proud of the special place they enjoy in American politics and quick to take offense at suggestions that some other state would do just as well. They point out that since the primary was given its present form, the only president elected without winning here has been Bill Clinton, who finished second to Paul Tsongas in 1992.
The prime champion of the primary is Hugh Gregg, who served a single term as governor from 1952 to 1954 but has been involved in running many primary campaigns for candidates as diverse as Reagan, Rockefeller and Bush. With the help of financing from the Lane Dwinell Foundation, named for another former governor, Gregg raised the money to establish the Library and Archives of New Hampshire's Political Tradition across the street from the gold-domed statehouse.
He likes to argue that the primary serves to filter out the candidates without the potential to go all the way to the White House. As Michael York, the state historian, puts it, "We do a service to the country by weeding out all those people."
Indeed, it is fair to say the primary electorate in each party may provide its major service by sending a message, sometimes quite indirectly, about their candidates.