NEW HAMPSHIRE - This is a beautiful state. The fading sun shining on the snow capped fields and mountains sends a beautiful winter glow across the landscape.
The little towns and hamlets, snow blanketed, are straight out of a Currier and Ives painting. As evening falls the white landscape casts an eerie light, so there is never true darkness.
I am here accompanied by Ciaran, my brother-in-law, on our every four years lost weekend. For us political junkies this is the Super Bowl and World Series all in one. Others go hunting and fishing. We go looking for politicians.
For the first time since 1952 there is no incumbent or vice presidential incumbent running. The contests on both sides are fascinating and ever changing. By the time you read this you will know the results of the nation's first primary, and New Hampshire 2008 will have gone down in history and the big dogs will have long departed.
We left New York around noon last Friday and pulled into New Hampshire four hours later. Our first stop was a Mike Huckabee event at a high school gymnasium, a chance to see the surprise Iowa winner in action.
It was a disappointment. On stage with him was Chuck Norris, who up close looks all of his 67 years, and Norris' obligatory trophy wife, who nodded at all the right moment and smiled vacantly.
Huckabee seemed old and tired also, tumbling through a poor speech, interrupted only by a gaggle of high schoolers cheering every mention of Norris. The overall impression was a rowdy town council meeting somewhere.
Next stop was Senator John McCain in a VFW Hall in Hudson. The veterans were out in force, among them many of McCain's roommates from the notorious Hanoi Hilton where he was held for much of the Vietnam War.
There was an old timers feel to the entire event and McCain, at 71, looks his age. The old fire is still there, however, as he rallied his troops for one more assault on the highest office in the land. The fact that he has come back from the dead politically is another example of how resilient a character he is.
The next morning the contrast could not have been any greater at the Mitt Romney breakfast event in Derry New Hampshire. Romney looked like Ken, the Barbie doll companion.
Everyone was preppy and spiffy and the event ran like clockwork, and every one clapped on cue (except for my rude brother-in-law who attacked Romney for his stance on illegal immigration).
Romney is clearly a very bright man, probably the smartest person running for president, but his decision to reinvent himself going from moderate governor of a blue state to snarling right-winger did him no favors. He doesn't even sound like be believes what he is saying much of the time, and it shows.
Next up was the Senator Barack Obama rally in Nashua in a high school gymnasium there. There was an horrendous traffic jam and people had abandoned their cars as far as a mile away to walk to the rally.
Obama is enormously impressive as a speaker, and watching it from the press section and later talking to reporters I could see the clear evidence of the love affair between the candidate and the press. Put simply, he can do no wrong and they are blatantly rooting for him and against Hillary Clinton.
All of which is fine, but if that changes, as it inevitably will, then the hothouse flower of New Hampshire in January may quickly become a wilted rose.
Obama's main theme appears to be a bipartisan approach to solving every problem. Great in theory, but Republicans are already telling him to get lost - they are not going to walk in lockstep with one of the most liberal senators in Congress.
Next up was Bill Clinton in Amherst, at a high school gymnasium. The old warhorse was in fine form, taking questions for an eternity and stirring the troops like no one else can. Rumors abound that he is very unhappy about the direction of his wife's campaign in these early primaries, but the reality is that Obama may well have been unstoppable anyway.
The following morning we saw Hillary herself at the same location that Obama had been in the previous day. This is truly a time that will test her soul, but she came bouncing out on the stage and took every question the crowd could throw at her (including one from my ever present brother-in-law, who praised her for her handling of Northern Ireland.)
There is no shortage of finger pointing and told you so's about the Clinton campaign. About a year ago I attended a day long seminar in Washington, D.C. held by her campaign honchos.
Back then the issue was going to be Iraq and competence and experience after the Bush era, and that is exactly how she has run. Unfortunately, someone changed the script.
Whether she can regain her footing depends on how quickly she can adapt. As we left New Hampshire we agreed she still had a chance to do so, but the next month will be telling.
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