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opinion

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.

A town hall meeting in a stone church. A speech before a Rotary Club. A visit to a tavern. A forum at a small college. A conversation with voters in a high-school cafeteria.

The American presidency may be conducted in the Oval Office and Situation Room, in front of a joint session of Congress, in the gilded halls of world diplomacy or in set-piece rituals at cemeteries and historic sites. But the road to the White House goes through the gritty mill towns, snowy villages and mountain fastnesses of New Hampshire, where the politics is intimate, the questions are unscripted, the audiences are demanding – and the stakes are high.

Iowa, its frost-encrusted corn and soybean fields, and its peculiar, almost inscrutable, caucus system are in the rearview mirror, and now all the candidates are here. They're seeking the White House by going house to house in the White Mountains, hoping to seem presidential by canvassing in the shadow of the Presidential Range, whose white-topped peaks are named for George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, even Dwight Eisenhower. They've been doing it for 100 years.

So vital is New Hampshire that all last week, when the focus of the American political world was on Iowa, Republican Governor John Kasich of Ohio remained here, 2,100 kilometres away. He, like so many presidential candidates before him, is betting all his political hopes on the state's primary, which is celebrating its centenary this year and is celebrated as the most authentic relic of old-time retail politics.

Mr. Kasich has spent five dozen days in New Hampshire, far more than most of his competitors, conducting a 21st century political travelling salvation show aimed to win votes – and to redeem the historical role of this state in presidential politics. Traditionally, New Hampshire's crusty and ornery voters reject the choice Iowa has made, often catapulting a lesser-known candidate to prominence.

It happened in 1968, when President Lyndon Johnson was stunned by Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota, an antiwar crusader considered more gadfly than challenger. Mr. Johnson got more votes, but Mr. McCarthy's strong showing elevated him and prompted the president not to seek re-election after all.

"New Hampshire residents take their role seriously, raise important issues in small home meetings, and demand specific ideas from the candidates they meet with," another underdog, former senator Gary Hart, told me recently. Mr. Hart upended Democratic politics in 1984 when he upset former vice-president Walter Mondale in New Hampshire.

Charles Campion, forever marked by running that unsuccessful New Hampshire campaign for Mr. Mondale, acknowledges the value of the peculiar nature of this primary – and argues that at its best it's as vital as ever.

"Now that big contributors can have a huge impact on presidential politics, small states are more important than ever," Mr. Campion said. "A candidate like Hillary Clinton has to stand there, in front of the public, and answer questions for 15 minutes. It's much more important now than it ever was."

Sometimes that intimacy can produce comic scenes. John Brennan was crossing the Dartmouth College campus in Hanover, N.H., in 1975 when he was importuned by former governor Jimmy Carter of Georgia, a classic presidential underdog who introduced himself and said he was seeking the White House. "Sure, good luck," Mr. Brennan, later the head of the $3-billion (U.S.) Vanguard investment management company, said as he hurried off. "I've got to get to a football game."

No one argues that New Hampshire is representative of America as a whole. It has far fewer minorities than the rest of the country, a higher rate of home ownership, and a long tradition of opposing taxes. It has cultivated a strong ethos of independence; the licence plates say "Live Free or Die," and, as early as 1612, Captain John Smith passed the area by ship and remarked: "Here every man can be master of his own labour and land in a short time."

The result is a century-old brand of politics that is pure and personal, no match for the Soviet Union (founded a year after the first presidential primary here as the apotheosis of the politics of the people), or China (which five years before the first primary fostered a revolution intended to create a more responsive form of government and which still bears the name of a People's Republic), or even other states in the American Union (where the politics is more of a wholesale rather than retail nature, depending more on expensive advertising than on massive numbers of handshakes and hugs and frigid mornings outside paper plants).

"It's good for the candidates to knock on doors and eat donuts with the locals and speak at Rotary Clubs," former president George H.W. Bush, who won Iowa in 1980 but was defeated in New Hampshire by former governor Ronald Reagan of California, wrote in an e-mail. "You can't just fly around and never leave the tarmac." Even billionaire Donald Trump will leave jetside while campaigning in New Hampshire.

That's in part because despite his lead in the polls here, he knows that in New Hampshire those who are independents – not affiliated with any party – can vote. He knows, too, that even candidates written off by the experts can prevail in the state.

As a result, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, refers to New Hampshire as the American political "crucible" – and, he wrote in a note sent during his travels as the Obama administration's Secretary of State: "Sometimes the best lessons were those learned the hard way, on icy roads marked by forest heaves and at town hall meetings where the air crackled with skepticism." Mr. Kerry won that primary 12 years ago, although the air still crackled with skepticism. It always does here.