By Thomas Kaplan/Staff Reporter

HAMPTON, N.H. — As Keri Lucas, a 32-year-old schoolteacher from Nottingham, N.H., trudged through the snow outside Winnacunnet High School here last Sunday night, she could barely contain her excitement.

Lucas and her boyfriend’s mother, Judy Barsosky, 66, another schoolteacher, drove for close to an hour for the privilege of standing in the damp cold outside this school for another hour as dusk settled over the seaside town of 14,000. Of course, they would be heading to work at their own schools the next morning.

But that night, they were here to see Senator Hillary Clinton LAW ‘73, their favorite candidate among those Democrats vying for the presidential nomination. The women were longtime residents of Massachusetts, where they watched the New Hampshire buzz from a state away every four years and enjoyed candidate visits — the perk of proximity — themselves. But last winter, they moved across the border, just in time for their first New Hampshire primary.

“This,” Lucas said, “is the state where you get to see everyone.”

“It’s great up here because of that,” Barsosky added. “You have a voice. Everyone feels empowered.”

And throughout the Granite State last week, the crowds at rallies and town hall meetings, stump speeches and meet-and-greets proved exactly that. In this state, the primary is not just a civic event; it is a spectacle, and one of indescribable proportions.

There were the thousands of people who lined blocks in downtown Manchester in the early morning, hoping to land a coveted seat in a small theater where Senator Barack Obama would speak later that day. There were the Clinton supporters like Lucas and Barsosky who stretched sore muscles in long queues outside dozens of local high schools.

And there were Yale students, too, who were among the volunteers spending countless hours distributing hundreds of lawn signs, making thousands of telephone calls and working up a mid-winter sweat as they did everything in their power to help their candidate pull through.

They all agreed on one thing — that there was no better place to be in primary season than New Hampshire.

The center of the universe

For five days, this windy, cold, economically strained state of 1.3 million anti-tax, independent-spirited residents, young and old, became the focus of the world’s media establishment. And eight candidates crisscrossed the snow-covered land in search of every last undecided voter.

On Monday — the day before the primary — camera crews accosted unsuspecting passersby in downtown Manchester, hunting for just the right soundbyte. Dozens of lawn signs advertising candidates ranging from Clinton to lesser-known Republican congressman Duncan Hunter dotted snowbanks at every turn. The MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews seemed as common a sighting on street corners as the Flower Lady is in New Haven.

Quiet places like tiny Saint Anselm College — a liberal arts school with an endowment worth less than the cost of the Silliman College renovation — were turned into veritable zoos. At Saint Anselm, where the traffic snaked for miles as if before the Harvard-Yale game, hundreds of reporters squeezed into a room to watch the candidates in two back-to-back debates.

Bob Cook, a reporter for Foster’s Daily Democrat, a daily newspaper in Dover, N.H., lamented the fact that he was not able to watch the candidates from the debate hall itself, but rather from the cavernous gymnasium.

“I was so naive,” he said.

Other writers were more agitated amid the media circus. Reporters from The Houston Chronicle complained that, unlike their colleagues from media heavyweights like The New York Times and The Washington Post, they did not get reserved seats inside the media room. Still others could not find a place to set up their laptops at all.

“There’s not a single (expletive) empty seat,” one reporter fumed as he walked across the room.

The debates were broadcast across the country, and media from coast to coast had converged in Manchester to cover them. But the real audience that mattered was in Londonderry and Portsmouth, Franconia and Seabrook.

“You know,” Clinton said during the debate, “I think this is one of the most serious decisions that the voters of New Hampshire have ever had to make.”

And voters here took her word for it.

A final pitch from the candidates

In the final days before the primary, voters young and old turned out for rallies in Granite State. A reporter could not walk into a coffee shop without being approached by campaign volunteers eager to tout their candidate — who almost invariably seemed to be Ron Paul.

And there were celebrities, to be sure. Mike Huckabee invited supporters to have authentic chili with actor Chuck Norris. John McCain trotted out Wilford Brimley and a slew of military veterans. Tim Robbins did his best to convince voters that John Edwards was a first-tier candidate. At one Obama rally, the comedian Larry David stood in the back of the room, fidgeting, awkwardly standing by himself, and, at one point, struggling to get an errant piece of scotch tape off his shoe, the Illinois senator’s stump speech proceeding in the background.

There were the hecklers, too. At a town hall meeting in a local grange hall, Rudy Giuliani was called a “baby-killer”; at another town hall meeting in Salem, John McCain was shouted down by angst-ridden AIDS activists.

But most of all, there were voters — real people, who took the time to turn out to grange halls and middle school gymnasiums and theaters to hear the candidates in the flesh.

Patti Eckels, for example, a retiree who has lived in New Hampshire for over 40 years, saw Bill Richardson speak twice in person near her home — and knew he was the candidate for her.

“I could see he’s an extremely genuine person,” she said outside the polls on Tuesday, the day of the primary. “And the media is totally ignoring him.”

Even Mike Gravel, the cast-off Alaskan Democrat, drew close to 75 people to the Phillips Exeter Academy library. He was satisfied with his crowd of mostly students, many of whom asked detailed, thoughtful questions, and said he wouldn’t trade it for the youthful masses fawning over candidates like Obama.

“A lot of young people, they’re sophomoric, and they haven’t really thought very much,” Gravel said in an exclusive interview with the News. “And so they’re into celebrity. These are the people that follow Paris Hilton and Britney Spears — and they follow Obama.”

But whether they came to support a figure they saw as a rock star or a politician, to most of the candidates, the crowds clearly mattered.

At a rally in Hampton on the afternoon before the election, at which volunteers for his campaign baked cinnamon cookies, Edwards practically begged residents to drag their neighbors to the polls. Call them. Knock on their door. Anything.

“I need you,” Edwards implored.

Students get in on the act

Dartmouth College may rank in the Ivy League’s lower tier, but students there have one advantage over their peers at Yale — they get to vote in the nation’s first primary election, whether they hail from Hanover or Houston.

Sophomore Marcus Gadson, of Indianapolis, would have had to wait until May 6th to cast his vote in the Democratic primary in his home state of Indiana. But at Dartmouth, not only did he get to see Obama up close and personal at a rally one Tuesday morning, but he got to vote in the New Hampshire primary, as well.

“That’s one of the great perks of going to Dartmouth,” he said on the way to cast his vote.

He was not alone. All over campus last week, the hot-button debates — Obama vs. Clinton, change vs. experience — peppered conversations all around Hanover.

Do students really care that much?

“Oh, yeah,” said Michael Thomas, a senior from Maryland. “People here are definitely excited about it.”

And incomparable electoral power was not the only perk. The dinner buffet at the Saint Anselm debate rivaled sustainable food night at Berkeley College. There were the cinnamon cookies at the Edwards rally. And when Mitt Romney addressed employees at the Timberland world headquarters in Stratham, N.H., members of the media got the best surprise of the trip — a 40 percent discount at the Timberland company store, a staffer told a few reporters. And word spread quickly.

“No kidding!” exclaimed one of Romney’s press aides, as he plotted when he might be able to slip away and buy a new pair of boots. Despite his candidate’s flailing hopes in the Granite State, the aide was overcome with work-boot-induced glee.

But the real winners were the Timberland workers, who got to take their best shot at Romney and, later in the day, Richardson.

“Just another day at the office, right, Timberland?” the company’s CEO, , joked to his workers.

And it was not just at the outdoor apparel company that voters got to see some of America’s most vaunted politicians up close and in the flesh. It was everywhere, everyday.

That’s why Jack Neal, 61, couldn’t help but smile when he saw the line of cars parked in front of his modest home in working-class Salem, N.H., where Senator John McCain was about to hold a town hall meeting at a nearby middle school.

Neal said he didn’t mind the cars parked on his lawn or the people bustling about all over his neighborhood. In fact, with McCain and other candidates coming to speak here, he relished it, inconvenience and all.

“Truly,” he said, “it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

And nary a voter in New Hampshire, nor a journalist on the trail for the first time, would disagree.

— Kaplan reported from New Haven and Cheshire, Conn., and Exeter, Hampton, Hanover, Hudson, Londonderry, Manchester, Nashua, Salem, Seabrook and Stratham, N.H.