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New Hampshire a battleground state once again in this U.S. election

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Its highest peaks were sighted by Samuel de Champlain in 1605, climbed by Henry David Thoreau in 1844, celebrated in poetry by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1845, skied by America's gold-medal super-combined champion Bode Miller well into the 21st century. The presidential primary was born here, and so was the fabled 19th-century American lawmaker Daniel Webster. With a tiny seacoast in the southeast and the East's highest mountains hugging the Canadian border, New Hampshire has a culture, folklore and political history all its own.

And this autumn, as its apples are sliced into savoury pies, pressed into sweet cider and sold in rickety wooden shacks along country byways, New Hampshire once again is at the centre of American politics.

It has emerged as one of the critical battlegrounds of the fall presidential campaign, the destiny of its tiny prize of a mere four electoral votes so uncertain – and so vital – that Manhattan businessman Donald Trump, former secretary of state Hillary Clinton and Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson all touched down here within a 24-hour period the other day. Now that we are deep into "the long melancholy of the fall''– this evocative phrase comes from Howard Moss, the late poetry editor of the New Yorker, in a poem he titled New Hampshire – they'll be back, many times.

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This little state used to attract almost no attention in general elections," said Linda Fowler, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, on the Connecticut River in the far western reaches of the state. "But – to the great surprise of us all – this has become a huge draw for the candidates, mostly because this state isn't really 'blue' or 'red.' Not many states are movable, so huge amounts of money are flowing over our borders. It's something to behold." This is not the first time in this century that New Hampshire, which every four winters lends its colourful frosty backdrop to the first presidential primary, has been at the very centre of American politics.

In one of the totally unexpected and virtually inexplicable twists of American politics, the overtime 2000 campaign deadlock between governor George W. Bush of Texas and vice-president Al Gore of Tennessee was caused by the famously unpredictable if not deliberately ornery voters of New Hampshire, who in earlier years chased Lyndon Johnson from the 1968 presidential campaign and delivered stunning primary defeats to putative front-runners Walter Mondale (1984), Mr. Clinton (1992) and both George Bushes (1980 for the elder one, and 2000 for the junior Bush).

Sixteen years ago, a modest surge of votes for third-party candidate Ralph Nader denied Mr. Gore the margin of victory that would have given him the presidency and avoided the hanging-chad spectacle of the Florida recount that led to Mr. Bush's eventual victory.

Once a devoutly conservative redoubt tucked safely and reliably in the Republican column, the state, swaths of which have become something of a northern suburb of Boston, has become increasingly congenial to Democratic presidential candidates. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama each carried the Granite State twice – but Ms. Clinton's lead here is considered so fragile, and the potential of a strong Libertarian showing so threatening, that New Hampshire has become a fixture on the candidates' campaign itineraries.

Ms. Clinton, who lost the February primary here to Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is determined not to let the Gore history repeat itself, even as Mr. Trump, who was triumphant here in the winter balloting, is determined to compete in the state – or at least position himself to take advantage of a strong Johnson showing. The New Hampshire Union Leader, the only statewide newspaper, late last month endorsed Mr. Johnson, a former governor of New Mexico.

"I've gotten complaints from both sides that we're helping Trump or helping Hillary," Joseph W. McQuaid, the newspaper's publisher, said in an interview.

Though the Trump campaign has been criticized for its poor organization, his backers here have fanned out across the state, even holding 51 "meet-ups" on one day recently to create enthusiasm and to build lists of supporters. Ms. Clinton has a formidable organization, some of it dating to her husband's early efforts here a quarter-century ago, when he first faced specific public questions about his marital fidelity and, with the assistance of his wife, battled back to a second-place primary finish. He then proclaimed himself the Comeback Kid, and, indeed, Ms. Clinton took that mantle herself in 2008, when she won New Hampshire after losing the Iowa caucuses to Mr. Obama.

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New Hampshire presents challenges to both major-party nominees. With an unemployment rate of 3.0 per cent – second only to the 2.9-per-cent mark registered by South Dakota – Mr. Trump's pleas for jobs and his critiques of the North American free-trade agreement (NAFTA) do not fall on fertile territory. Nor does Ms. Clinton's customary appeal to minority voters have much potential here; Hispanics and blacks account for far less than 2 per cent of the population each.

Poll soundings show that twice as many people here are undecided as they were four years ago; perhaps that is because, as the playwright Thornton Wilder wrote in his classic 1938 Our Town, a drama set in Grover's Corners, a fictional crossroads based on the New Hampshire town of Peterborough, "In our town, we like to know the facts about everybody."

For all those factors, the resolution of the election in this state defies prediction. "The polls here will fluctuate a lot because of the unpopularity of both major candidates," said Andrew E. Smith, a University of New Hampshire political scientist who is director of the New Hampshire Survey Center. "Very few people are enthusiastic about either of them."

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.

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About the Author
Executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. More

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