CONCORD, N.H., 7:15 p.m. — Secretary of State Bill Gardner is known as the man who saved New Hampshire’s status as the first primary state in the nation.

But as is clear today, he did not only save any Hampshire presidential primary; he saved what may go down in history as the state’s most important primary ever.

Speaking in an exclusive interview with The News, here’s what Gardner said: “There’s a high level of the spirit of democracy, whether it’s in Portsmouth, Manchester, or here in Concord — the rallies, the crowds. We have something in New Orleans called Mardi Gras, and it’s something of that kind of an atmosphere: a very joyful one.”

“A lot of young people have been part of it this time. I noticed them at the polling place, coming in, voting and being part of it,” he added. “It’s a really nice feeling when you witness that.”

Gardner went on to praise the friendly spirit of the polls.

“Look at the debates the other night, when the Democrats and Republicans got on stage. A lot of that was on the streets, where people were holding signs and taking turns, with Obama people taking Obama signs and Ron Paul signs. They each take turns in being at the front, and then the next one would get it for a while. They were obviously talking and communicating and getting out there without throwing bombs or throwing punches. No one’s been arrested.”

Despite rumors that he was running around the state because precincts had seen a shortage of ballots due to a surge in voter turnout, Gardner told me that “nobody’s run out of ballots.”

But he did say that the New Hampshire tradition of friendly democracy was exemplified in several acts of personal fortitude by those willing to vote.

“I saw this old woman who could bearly walk helped by some people that were much younger than her… to get into the booth of the disabled to be able to cast her ballot,” he recounted. “I had a gentleman come up to me who had just voted. He was smiling [but] he had two tubes in his nose and was carrying an oxygen bottle… He had come out so he could vote.”

He said these personal acts of bravery reminded him of the 1984 primary, when a blizzard hit on polling day. “There were no cars on the road, nobody was driving—the weather was that bad. And as I turned into my polling place, there were about 50 people with hats on, waiting in the snow. When I saw that, well — what a warm feeling to see all those people that had done the same thing.”

As for Gardner’s ballot, it was cast at 6 a.m. Since then, well, he’s been enjoying the weather. How could anyone not?

“This time it’s a bit different [from 1984], quite the opposite,” he said. “We don’t get many days like this in winter up here.”

— Nicolas Niarchos