MILFORD, N.H. - The foliage is long past its prime here, and so is the presidential campaign of 2000.
Just over nine months ago, New Hampshire was the nation's political capital, the scene of bitterly contested primaries in both parties. This was the place where Sen. John McCain, riding his Straight Talk Express bus, electrified the political world by defeating George W. Bush by 18 percentage points in the Republican primary.
This was also the place where Bill Bradley, the former senator from New Jersey, threw a scare into Vice President Al Gore in the Democratic primary before losing narrowly after committing a series of campaign blunders.
Today, there is a pervasive consensus that few potential voters care very much whether Gore or Bush wins the election tomorrow. The excitement of last winter has been supplanted by what seems to be a general malaise.
Kathleen Reaves, a woman of a certain age just out of the beauty parlor, voted in the primary and intends to vote tomorrow.
"The election has become such a bore," she confides. "I'm more interested in whether my husband likes my new color."
Then, tossing her freshly auburn hair, she adds, "I know that sounds awful, but I'm not the only one who feels like that."
Indeed, she is not. In the small shops around the Oval, Milford's version of a town square, there is some talk about how Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat, is apparently fending off a challenge from former Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey, the hard-line conservative who is challenging her. But there is little talk about Gore and Bush.
"People don't care," says Susan Calegari of Northfield, a Democratic veteran who helped direct the Bradley campaign in the primary. "They really don't feel invested in this election. [The candidates are] talking about these small-bore issues, things that don't have any resonance."
`He's so bad'
Privately, other party veterans involved in the Shaheen and Gore campaigns agree, scoffing at what they consider the vice president's potentially disastrous flaws as a candidate.
"He's so bad," says one leading Democrat who worked for Gore in the primary. "The only thing saving him is the other guy."
This behind-the-hand muttering is something new for the Granite State. In most presidential election years here, the results of the primaries are put aside by this time, and the activists have united behind their own local candidates. This time, there are still visible scars.
Calegari worked for Shaheen's campaign for a time and remains committed to her. But some liberal Democrats who supported Bradley against Gore have opted out of the presidential campaign this fall. A few of them supported a failed primary challenge to Shaheen, and a handful may be supporting a liberal independent candidate, Mary Brown, in the general election.
"The primary challenge robbed the Democrats of some enthusiasm," says Dayton Duncan, a longtime Democratic operative.
Bush has been unable to evoke any zeal, partly because of the attitude of independents who supported McCain so overwhelmingly when he defeated the Texas governor by 18 percentage points in the Feb. 1 primary.
"Gore's up a little because of the independents who didn't like Bush in the primary," says Dick Bennett of the American Research Group. His polls show, he says, that "in New Hampshire, they dislike Bush more."
But the vice president is not lighting any fires, either. "When you run the issues," Bennett says, "Gore's side wins. But when you attach Gore to it, they back away from it."
The wounds from the primary wars are most raw among the Republicans who opposed one another in the Bush-McCain contest.
"There's still some hangover from before," says Tom Rath, a Concord lawyer who has been a leading strategist for Republican candidates for a generation. "There's a little taste in people's mouths that hasn't been erased yet."
Rath is one of those hangover victims. Because he supported Bush in the primary, he was summarily replaced as a Republican National Committee member by the McCain forces who took control of the state party apparatus, at least temporarily, on the strength of their primary success.
The rebuff was obvious when they gave Rath's slot to a young McCain staff operative.
But what was most galling was the fact that former Sen. Warren B. Rudman, a leading McCain adviser, joined in kicking Rath out. Rudman and Rath had been friends and political allies through many elections.
The pertinent question is whether the leftover bitterness between the Bush and McCain forces has any effect on New Hampshire's four electoral votes, a prize of more potential consequence than in most presidential elections.
Jack Spanos, a Republican activist here, was one of the first to spot McCain's potential, way back in May 1999, when the Arizona senator was still a blip in the opinion polls. And he worked assiduously for McCain through the primary campaigns.