Manchester, N.H. - They started straggling into hotels here early last Thursday morning like survivors from the Battle of the Bulge. Crazed and dazed, exhausted, frozen, monosyllabic. They dragged their grotty bags to front desks to register after enduring punishing night flights from the rodeo out in Iowa.
The traveling media had arrived in New Hampshire.
The state had been a yawn the day before. You could actually park on Elm Street, Manchester's main drag. You had your choice of booths at the Merrimack Restaurant, the downtown eatery that has been ground zero for candidate handshakes and photo ops since dinosaurs roamed the earth. Call it the calm before the storm.
On Thursday, New Hampshire became yet again an exercise in chaos theory. Candidate motorcades started crisscrossing the state like centipedes on crystal meth. According to their expense accounts, hundreds of reporters each took Obama strategist David Axelrod to dinner the same night.
The arcane campaign vocabulary resurfaced too, ominous terms like "mult box" - a distribution amp that provides multiple connections for media voice or video recorders. The electronic media would expire en masse without a mult box. Hence the critical question at every event, when is the mult box arriving?
I talked to a lot of people about the race and heard nothing earth-shattering other than the guy in
Al Bourque, a retired auto dealer from Portsmouth, told me it's more intense this time. "There are a helluva lot more candidates," he said. "And there's no designee, no one you say, 'This is the person.' "
"Their organizations are stronger," he added. "I'm not getting automated phone calls this time. I'm getting real live human voices begging me to vote for their candidates."
I ran into Frank Kwapniewski and his wife at Wal-Mart. She said she doesn't answer the phone anymore unless it's a friend calling, prompting Kwapniewski to mutter, "We don't have any friends."
Wednesday, you could sit down and chat in a leisurely way with Connie Farr, owner with her sister of the Merrimack. She gets livid over the questions she's been getting from the media. I don't blame her.
"They come in and ask me, 'Who's the biggest tipper?' " she said. "I get insulted by that. Can't they ask me anything better? I can hold a conversation and flip a cheeseburger. Just because we flip burgers doesn't mean we're not intelligent. No one ever asks me about the war or the economy. We don't get asked those questions."
"The candidates used to sit down and talk to the customers," she added. "Now they just shake hands. It used to be fun when we started in 1982. Now it's work."
Wednesday, you could step into the sepulchral silence at the Chris Dodd headquarters in Manchester and talk to any of three people there, including press secretary Bryan DeAngelis, who vowed that fresh bodies from Iowa would blanket the place on Thursday.
But then Dodd pulled out of the race Wednesday evening, leaving DeAngelis and his fellow Doddites drifting untethered somewhere near Pluto.
Wednesday, I could marvel at the guy in a red parka waving at every passing car atop an ice mountain on South Willow Street. Surrounded by McCain signs, he stood there like Edmund Hillary on Everest, on the coldest day of the winter - close to zero early morning with a windchill that took it down about three million degrees.
Whatever they don't pay him, it's not enough.
But the gold went to the hardy band of Dennis Kucinich sign holders who began their vigil in front of the Merrimack at 7 that morning. The MVP of the Kucinich irregulars was, hands down, Jon Phoenix Brookstone, a Northeastern student notable for his attire as much as his middle name.
Young Phoenix clearly has some L Street Brownie in him because he favors shorts and boots while sign-holding. He told me he saw a study that said the cold virus is relatively stable in cold weather. And your point is, Jon?
In the miserably short five days between Iowa and New Hampshire, we'll see if Mike Huckabee's Arkansas twang plays on the Granite stage.
If Hillary Clinton can stem the serious damage below her campaign's waterline, if John Edwards is anything other than a dead man walking.
In New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is terror-stricken. He makes me think of John Kerry - great hair and good chin. Kerry won here last time and Mitt is trying. But it's hard to figure out in either case who actually likes the candidate.
Barack Obama blew in on the Iowa zephyrs. He's past novelty and rock star now. No one is quite sure what he is, but I'll tell you this: The line of people waiting to see him Thursday at Concord High School stretched out into the street and around the block.
Iowa was big but it's out somewhere near the Aleutians. This is New Hampshire and you can't escape this race anymore. It's showtime.
Sam Allis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
(Correction: Because of a reporting error, events recounted in Sunday's Observer column about the N.H. political scene were erroneously described as occurring on Wednesday and Thursday. They actually happened on Thursday and Friday.)