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Gary Younge
Sit in a New Hampshire diner long enough and you may well meet the next president

The leaves, ripe with autumn and fluttering in Hurricane Jeanne's tail, blend chocolate, lime, ruby and gold.

Take your eyes off the road for a moment and you will catch a glorious blur; fix them back on the licence plate in front of you and New Hampshire's libertarian principles are etched in black and white: "Live Free or Die".

The state certainly takes these principles seriously.

It has no income tax or sales tax. On the ground floor of the local library they mark Banned Book week by putting the works of authors who have been proscribed elsewhere in the country, such as Isabel Allende, Alice Walker, Judy Blume and JK Rowling, on a special shelf with the note: "Someone, well intentioned or not, wanted to 'protect' other readers by preventing them having the choice to see these books. The Derry Public Library invites you to decide for yourself what your children should read."

But for a place so suspicious of government, New Hampshire has an awful lot of it. Although it is one of the 10 least populous states in the nation, it has by far the largest legislature - 424 representatives for just 1.28 million inhabitants.

"We expect there to be a close distance between voter and candidate," says the historian Richard Holmes. "When we vote locally it's not for parties but because, 'I know this man to be a good man'."

And, as the first state to hold primaries, there is an intimacy between voters here and the presidential candidates. Lisa O'Neill had Howard Dean speak in her front garden. Jack Polidoro of Laconia twice had dinner with the Democratic vice-presidential candidate, John Edwards.

The Republican state senator, Frank Sapareto, has met George Bush several times. Sit in Mul's Diner on Derry's Broadway long enough in an election year and there's a good chance you'll bump into the next president. Last week alone Mr Bush, his mother and daughters were here, as were Mr Kerry and Mr Edwards.

It may be small but New Hampshire is sufficiently awkward and unpredictable - in the 1992 primaries it resurrected Bill Clinton's fortunes and in 2000 almost derailed Mr Bush by backing John McCain - for it not to be ignored.

This year is no different. The state should be a Republican stronghold, but it isn't. In 2000 Mr Bush took it narrowly by 48% to Al Gore's 47%, with Ralph Nader getting 4%. This time round the latest polls have Mr Bush and Mr Kerry even on 46% and Mr Nader on 2%.

It is a sign of how close the election is nationally that both parties are working so hard here, even though the state has only four votes in the electoral college that chooses the president. Candidates need 270 college votes to win, but New Hampshire would have been enough to tip the result for Mr Gore four years ago.

Many factors could explain the current unease with Mr Bush's administration.

"We left the Republican party because it's been taken over by the religious right," says Nan Stearns, who voted for Mr Bush in 2000 but will be backing Mr Kerry in November. "All my life I voted Republican. But George Bush doesn't represent to us what America means to us."

Mr Nader, who has been distracted by attempts to get on the ballot, has had little time to campaign here. That has left plenty of room on the left for the Democratic challenger for the senate, Doris Haddock, a 94-year-old great-grandmother of 16 who is known as Granny D.

"The corporations have taken over," she says after a packed house party in Laconia. "To become a powerful man today you have to sell your soul."

But a worry for both parties, says Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire survey centre, is that their national messages have proved too simplistic here. There are few blue-collar workers and minorities who would usually back the Democrats, and relatively few fundamentalist churchgoers on whom the Republicans rely.

"New Hampshire is a Republican state but not a conservative state," he says. "Both the Democratic and Republican bases here are out of step with their bases in the rest of the country."

The themes that work for each party nationally do not work so well in New Hampshire. James Pindell, the managing editor of, the state's online newsletter, says: "Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans can play their trump cards."

In the bowels of the local museum there is a picture marking a moment that would change Derry forever, and helps explain why the politics of the town have become so difficult to read. Alan Shepard, America's first man in space and a native son, is kneeling in a hard hat next to a detonator as his wife, Louise, looks on.

It was 1962 and the town's population was in decline along with the shoe manufacturer that was one of the area's major employers. Shepard was presiding over the ceremonial explosion that would blast interstate 93 into existence. From then on Derry would be starved of its identity as a town in its own right and start feeding Boston.

After this the growth was exponential, Mr Holmes says. "It was a good place to grow a family and people came here looking for green. Within a decade its population had doubled. Within two it had tripled; within three it had quadrupled."

By the late 60s Derry had its first mall and was well on the way to suburbanisation. A fifth of the town's current residents did not even live in New Hampshire 10 years ago, and 70% were born outside the state. The huge influx over a relatively short period of time unsettled an already fragile political equilibrium.

"The question is, who are these people?" asks Mr Pindell. "All the indicators are that they are the most likely people to vote but nobody knows how. Seventy per cent of them came from Massachusetts. Did they come here because they were ostracised by the taxes or are they socially liberal people bringing their values with them?"

It matters. In 2000 Rockingham county, where Derry is, voted 49% Republican, 46% Democrat, 4% Nader. Since then the population has grown by 5%.

Canvassers from America Coming Together, a progressive pressure group, visited a newly built neighbourhood to find out more about the recent arrivals. They came across a range of opinions, from a man who thought opposing the government in wartime was treasonous to those concerned about illegal immigration.

But Yvonne Shostack spoke for most when she said her main concern was the war. "I thought things would be more resolved than they are," she said. "People are still getting killed and we're still out there ... I'm on the fence. I don't know if Kerry will help the situation, but I don't think Bush can."

© Gary Younge. All Rights reserved, site built with tlc
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