EXETER, N.H. -- "I haven't been here since Monday. Won't be back 'til tomorrow," Bob Dole told supporters the other day when he arrived for a TV debate in Manchester, N.H.
Presidential candidates always have plenty of time for New Hampshire, even when there appears to be more important business elsewhere -- as there is now, in Congress, where it's make-or-break time for the Republican revolution.
The Kansas senator's three visits in four days may seem excessive, especially with the primary election more than four months away. But when it comes to campaigning in this state, the operative theory appears to be that nothing succeeds like excess.
New Hampshire, launch pad of presidents, graveyard of also-rans, has made a cottage industry out of this sort of politics. It picks up steam just as the autumn leaf show ends and is a more reliable industry than skiing, which must depend on the vagaries of Nature.
Here is where America's primaries begin -- always -- and where, it used to be said, you had to finish first if you were to make it to the White House. The state's 40-year streak of getting it right ended in 1992, when Bill Clinton lost the primary but got elected anyway.
But never mind that, say Republicans here -- a crowded field of candidates and a compressed campaign calendar next winter mean New Hampshire will be more important than ever this time.
Certainly the candidates are acting as if that's so. They've spent more time campaigning in New Hampshire this year than at the same stage of the race in years past, according to party activists.
Remarkably, almost a quarter of the Granite State's 190,000 Republican primary voters have already met one of the '96 contenders or seen one in person, according to a recent Dartmouth College/WMUR-TV poll.
In New Hampshire -- where the cliche goes that voters don't make up their minds until they've had a chance to meet a !B candidate three or four times -- such personal contact is taken for granted.
Last Thursday, for instance, Mr. Dole chartered a jet from Washington to New Hampshire so he could deliver a three-minute speech. His destination was a notably bizarre event, an elaborate costume party on the maple-lined streets of Exeter, which recently proclaimed itself the birthplace of the Republican Party.
Nine of the GOP contenders were there, including conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who delighted the crowd of several hundred by showing up in 19th-century period dress, complete with a gray top hat.
"This will get you votes in New Hampshire," says Greg Mueller, an adviser to Mr. Buchanan, who has spent at least 40 campaign days this year in the state where he ran a strong second to President George Bush four years ago.
Sen. Phil Gramm, who has also put in about 40 days in New Hampshire, was the only candidate missing. But he took care to send along a statement supporting the claim of local sponsors.
"There's no doubt in my mind," the Texas senator said, "that the birthplace of the Republican Party is New Hampshire," a contention that many dispute.
The reaction, on the front page of a leading New Hampshire paper and in other quarters, was more mirthful. The candidates, wrote the Concord Monitor, had been "snookered."
" It's clear that these desperate politicos will believe whatever we tell them -- or are too chicken to say so when they don't."
For years, officials here have cultivated the mythology of New Hampshire's political clout with a care that other states devote -- to promoting economic development. As other states covetously eye New Hampshire's place at the head of the primary calendar, the governor, Steve Merrill, is said to be determined that the state not lose that honor on his watch.
"This is still a state where you can campaign on a retail basis," says Mr. Merrill, a Republican. "And that's why New Hampshire is the state that picks presidents better than any other."
Since 1952, every winner of the White House had begun his run with a primary victory in New Hampshire. But the state's bellwether streak ended with Mr. Clinton's second-place finish to Paul Tsongas (though Mr. Clinton treated that as a victory, proclaiming himself "the Comeback Kid").
TV's influence is steadily overcoming the importance of organization and hand-to-hand campaigning in the state.
"You have to go out to the coffee shop," explains Jim Courtovich, Mr. Gramm's state campaign manager. "You have to shake that hand. But behind you, you need a camera. They don't necessarily expect you to knock on their door, but they expect to see you on television knocking on doors."
Critics are fond of noting that this corner of New England is hardly a microcosm of the country. The only state with neither a state income tax nor sales tax, New Hampshire is fiercely conservative in economics. A haven for suburbanites who have fled the urban problems of nearby Boston, it is also far less diverse than the nation as a whole; in the most recent census, the state's population was 98 percent white.
"The rules of presidential politics may be screwy rules, but you've got to play by them," says Thomas Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general and campaign strategist for Lamar Alexander. He was referring to California Gov. Pete Wilson's decision to skip next year's first real delegate test, the Iowa caucuses, a blunder that hastened the demise of Mr. Wilson's presidential candidacy.
A similar rule applies to New Hampshire: Ignore it at your own peril.
Mr. Gramm, a first-time presidential candidate, learned that earlier this year when he made what aides concede was a crucial mistake: He dared to associate himself with efforts by Republicans in other states, including Arizona and Delaware, to move to the front of the primary calendar.
"Senator Gramm suffered serious collateral damage, and it is still hurting him today," said John Stabile, the state Republican Party chairman.
Mr. Dole has seen his presidential dreams die here twice before. In 1980, he got exactly 597 primary votes; in 1988, Mr. Bush
knocked him out of the lead in the nomination race for good.
That memory still burns -- Mr. Dole seldom fails to bring it up in campaign appearances in the state -- and it's one reason he's made New Hampshire the focus of his '96 strategy.
The polls currently show him leading in the state but also indicate that most people have yet to make up their minds firmly. Random interviews with Republican voters confirmed that there is little real enthusiasm for Mr. Dole -- or for his rivals.
Last week's TV forum in New Hampshire, the first to feature all the GOP candidates, drew an audience of 20,000 households, only about 1 percent of the TV sets in the southern half of the state. Some political veterans weren't surprised.
"You can gauge political interest in New Hampshire with a thermometer," says Mr. Courtovich. "Until it hits 32 degrees, nobody pays attention."
Still, the candidates keep coming, eager to become familiar faces and cautious about upsetting local sensibilities -- at least when they're in the state.
As Mr. Dole returned to the Capitol last week from one of his lightning-fast campaign trips, he was asked how he'd done in the New Hampshire forum.
L "I showed up," he responded. "That's a win with that group."