Manchester, New Hampshire

OWING TO geographic and time-travel limitations, Cicero never made it to the New Hampshire primaries. Still, he anticipated them when he said, "A most wretched custom is our electioneering and scrambling for office." From the moment you touch down here, you sense a chicken-or-egg dynamic: It's unclear if the trivial is being made to seem important, or the important, trivial.

Almost everything in the state is tainted by overkill or hype. Rookie reporters check into Bedford's Wayfarer Inn--perhaps the most storied hotel on the campaign trail--half expecting the hotel bar to be haunted by grizzled newspapermen with hollow legs full of lager. Instead, they find that they're in a dreary hole next to a Macy's parking lot, that the bar often closes by 10, and that the toilets are installed too low, making even short people feel like NBA players when they sit on them, which I wouldn't recommend.

But despite all the "quaint" towns and "flinty" locals--as the newspaper guild requires hacks to designate all places and people in New Hampshire--it is, as one visitor tells me, a peek "inside the fishbowl--the ultimate 'Finding Nemo'." And he is right. I wasn't on the ground for 45 minutes before I found myself on a frozen downtown street corner, waving for Wes Clark (a Clark press release, one of 50 or so that come from the campaigns each day, reminded us that "if it's Wednesday, it's time for Waving for Wes").

For the last five Wednesdays, a group of 30 or so young campaign staffers, or Wes-wavers, have taken to street-corners, braving frostbite and heckling car horns and extended middle digits to sway sentiments toward The General. Despite all the blowback, they "stay positive, like John Edwards," says one, who's dutifully, if not sarcastically, feeding me back a journalistic cliché. This is, after all, a place that thrives on journalistic clichés, as evidenced by an entire chattering class of adults who spent the week being scandalized by Howard Dean's exclamatory "yee-hawwww," after his third-place finish in Iowa.

As the Wes-wavers take their places, Vinny Solomeno, a volunteer who's here with his cousin ("Cousins for Clark," they call themselves) shouts stage directions in an imitative Dean bellow: "We're going to Granite Ave.! We're going to Merrimack! We're going to Main Street!" Just then, a car drives by, spying the Clark signs and giving the thumbs-up. "Wow," says one volunteer, "that wasn't even one of our staffers. Those are real people!" As I talk to several Wes-wavers who admit such exercises are nearly pointless, I ask one why they do it. He's been nothing but friendly, but at this, he grows impatient. "We're doing it for you, you assholes. What would you guys be saying if you didn't see anyone out here?"

After an hour, I'm down Elm Street to the next pseudo-event: the launching of Joe Lieberman's bus, the Integrity One. If you're a candidate, it's a swell thing to have a bus. On it, you can talk to your press corps about your best attributes--like your integrity, for one. Lieberman's bus, however, is hung up in traffic. So the inaugural ride will become the inaugural walk, in which Lieberman, and a throng of rabid "Joe"-chanting supporters, will pin hapless yet "flinty" potential voters against the "quaint" storefronts of Papa John's, CVS, and Dunkin Donuts.

But before Lieberman shows, his wheelchair-bound 89-year-old mother is rolled out to wait for him. Though the temperature is subfreezing, she has neither a hat, nor gloves. I ask her what kind of son would let his aged mother cool her heels in this weather. She socks me in the arm--either playfully or just feebly, because she is an octogenarian who's been left out in the elements and is unable to muster more force. As she waits for her son to come out and roast some warm chestnuts ("State of the Union? George Bush is in a State of Denial"), she tells me she doesn't need any more layers: The excitement of the campaign is such that "I'm warm in my heart."

There's no such luck for the rest of us, who catch the Exeter town hall appearance of John Kerry and his wife Teresa Heinz, or Teresa Heinz-Kerry, as she prefers to be called during campaign years. Taking the stage of one of the elite prep school's halls, decked with marble columns and framed portraits of long-ago trustees looking distinguished in goopy oils, Heinz lives up to her well-earned reputation for saying just about anything. (Earlier last year, the ketchup heiress told Elle that "you have to have a prenup.") Launching into a Dadaist recitation of every subject from her childhood in Mozambique to Marilyn Monroe, she offers that one of the reasons she thinks her husband should be president is "because I'm getting older." While she extols his going into battle as "a lieutenant, not a general" (an obvious swipe at Wes Clark, who had earlier bragged of outranking Kerry), she awkwardly concludes by saying, "I would like to be in a foxhole with him."

On the Internet, the Exeter event was billed as a "Chili-feed," a campaign staple that has allowed Kerry to be all things to all people (he's gigged with Moby, invited reporters to watch him play pick-up hockey, and even posed for WindSurfer magazine). Tonight, he's not actually serving chili, but that doesn't mean that the guitar-picking wind-surfer can't show off a new hat--or an old one to be more precise--that of a blue-blooded child of privilege.

Kerry sounds all his usual themes, including the obligatory dozen or so allusions to his military service. But he also lets the Exeter audience know that he's their kind of people, rattling off his prep school pedigree. Admitting that he went to St. Paul's and that his daughter and father went to Andover, he jokingly begs for mercy since his wife used to be a trustee at Exeter. At this, my former colleague "Crossfire"-host Tucker Carlson, sitting next to me, nearly chokes on his Nicorette gum. "I don't remember him talking like this in Iowa," he says.

The next morning, I wake up not feeling so well. It seems I've come down with a touch of Kucinich Fever. Inside of Dennis Kucinich's bustling Manchester headquarters, he's consented to a slew of one-on-one's with reporters. As I wait for my turn, I gaze around the office, which looks like that of an alternative newspaper edited by John Lennon. Everywhere are clippings taped to the wall, and peace-themed literature, befitting the candidate who has espoused a Department of Peace.

As Kucinich pops his head out of his office door, he shushes us in the waiting room, telling us our chatter is ruining the audio for a television crew. Leavening the reprimand, he whispers, "Peace," and pops his head back in. When my turn comes, the staunch vegan is enjoying a bowl full of oatmeal and a styrofoam cup of hot lemon-water, which he trades for a paper cup, since, he says, the acidity of the lemon absorbs the styrofoam. "You're drinking plastic," he warns.

With ferret-like movements, he lands next to me, and tells me how the frontrunners in his party have stepped into a Republican-sprung bear trap on Iraq: They either voted for the war, and pretend that they didn't. Or they didn't vote for the war, but support a limited occupation. As Iraq comes to define the election, only he provides a clear-cut alternative to Bush, as someone who was against the war and wants to bring our troops home immediately, replacing them with U.N. peacekeeping forces. He's convinced no nominee will pick up 50 percent of the delegates by the convention, that he will push the fight all the way, and ultimately become his party's nominee. "You think I'm kidding," he says when I permit a slight smile, thinking about him stuck at 4 percent in the polls. He's not, he assures me. Because he has a secret weapon: "unlimited chutzpah."

A sucker for directness, I'm utterly charmed by Kucinich. I ask him to sign "A Prayer for America," his campaign book, which I now call "my bible," so that I can flip it on eBay. "Cool," he says. In fact, we get along so well that I ask him to send out a special coded message to me in that night's Democratic debate--a word that's not too inevitable, like "peace," but not too obscure, like "rutabaga." He can choose the word. I half expect him to tell me to get lost. But he doesn't. He chews his oatmeal thoughtfully. "Spirit," he says. It's a deal.

I kill the rest of the afternoon watching Wes Clark bag groceries at Sully's Superette. It's an ugly little affair in which throngs of journalists clog supermarket aisles, with photographers angrily barking at each other as each tries to capture the perfect backdrop of Clark standing in front of Velveeta cheese-spread boxes. Clark, in his defense, packs a mean sack, even if he drops an old woman's diet cookies. The manager says she'd hire him if he'd fill out an application. As a fledgling candidate, it's good to have a marketable skill to fall back on.

The main event, however, comes that evening at the umpteenth Democratic presidential debate. While everyone is on edge, anxious to see if Howard Dean overcomes his gaffes and makes up his lost lead, something seems to be missing. Perhaps the rock'n'roll bacchanal that was once synonymous with the name "Dick Gephardt." Still, you wouldn't know it outside. In the parking lot next to the venue at St. Anselm's College, staffers and volunteers of all stripes see who can out-chant whom. Kucinich supporters, greatly outnumbered but with a healthy dose of what they call "Dennis Power," hijack the proceedings with bucket drummers and dancers, out-funk-ifying the more vanilla Dean supporters. The freaks were also out in force. A man in a giant penis costume posing as a candidate offers all sorts of phallic campaign promises: He will "reform the penal code," he will "foster intercourse between nations," etc.

Up at the campus's Dominic Hill, John Kerry prepares to march down to the debate with a firefighter's union and their bagpiping corps, who are playing something that sounds like Dean funeral music. For a moment, Kerry's bus, the "Real Deal Express," almost grinds its candidate into the pavement as it hurtles down the hill. A line of Deaniacs obstruct the way, causing Kerry and company to knock into the back of their bagpipers, who are getting their kilts flipped up and worse. The Deaniacs then burst through the line, and the Kerry supporters start pushing back. The whole thing plays like a battle scene from "Braveheart," or it would've if "Braveheart" had featured a man dressed like a giant penis getting hip-checked into a snow-bank.

The debate itself, as has now been well-documented, is boring beyond description. In the light of Dean's meltdown, all the frontrunners seem intent on being their campaign-brochure selves, only less so. After sustaining a sore throat and a week of nightmare press, Howard Dean appears to be sucking back his own words even as he says them, causing Joshua Green of the Atlantic Monthly, sitting next to me in the press room, to comment, "It sounds like a guy trying to hold in a bong hit." Other reporters busy themselves by making fun of the candidates' physical characteristics, or by writing mock headlines for tomorrow's paper, such as "Safety First."

In the spin room afterwards, stanchions are placed on a gym floor with each candidate's name posted on them. But appearances by the candidates themselves follow a time-honored pecking order: the worse a candidate is doing, the more you see of him. Consequently, frontrunners Kerry and Dean don't even make an appearance. John Edwards and Clark make a brief showing, while Lieberman takes a few extra passes. And Al Sharpton and Dennis Kucinich are probably still holding court.

As I approach Kucinich, he spies me, and immediately looks shamed. He failed to utter the magic word during the debate, but a man of honor, he seeks to make amends. As I take my place among a group of reporters with no knowledge of our agreement, Kucinich, apropos of nothing, launches into the following, proving that sometimes the absurdity of these spectacles is its own reward. "What I want to say is, these debates could have been more SPIRITed. It would have been better television. However, the tone of the debate enabled me to get my SPIRIT out about the issues of trade, the war, education. . . . And I think the people of New Hampshire appreciate someone who's both specific and SPIRITED."

I couldn't have said it better myself.

Matt Labash is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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