Salena Zito

(DURHAM, N.H.) On the morning of the first fall debate in this college town, students, residents and politicos awoke to a landscape transformed.

By the time the campus bells chimed 8 a.m., the usually tidy University of New Hampshire sidewalks had been chalked-over with “Ron Paul for President” graffiti, John McCain campaign signs rose everywhere and a duck-costumed activist carried a sign around town asking why Fred Thompson was “ducking” New Hampshire.

In the first primary state in the country, people take their role so seriously that being first is written into state law. “The residents of New Hampshire for either party are very civically engaged,” said Fergus Cullen, the Granite State's Republican Party chairman.

His counterpart, Democrat chairman Ray Buckley, agreed: "(W)e have an amazing tradition ... of making every candidate earn our vote.”

At 35, Cullen is America’s youngest state party chairman. A competitive distance runner, he may also be the fastest. You need that youth and energy to keep up with all of the town-hall meetings, covered-dish dinners and parades he attends as GOP chairman.

At debate night last week, Cullen explained that in New Hampshire “it is all about earning our vote. … There is no heavy thumb from the establishment leaning on the scales for any candidate. All candidates walk into a level playing field.”

Cullen defines New Hampshire Republicans as a mixed bag: “They probably are a little more socially moderate than the national party -- remember, New Hampshire is the ‘Live Free or Die' state, and we don’t have an income or sales tax. … So these Republicans are a little more interested in fiscal issues than social issues.”

Historically, New Hampshire has tended to support candidates who put in the miles. Right now, Mitt Romney, former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, leads in covering that geography.

“By far, he has been here the most,” said Cullen, “and he has the best organization.”

But Cullen says don’t count out McCain and his loyal following. “He has the second-best organization in New Hampshire, even after having a difficult summer.”

Cullen says that while former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani got a bit of a late start here in organizing, “he has an opportunity to make the case that he is an electable national candidate by demonstrating that he can attract and win the votes of the independent voters here in New Hampshire.”

Forty-four percent of the voters in New Hampshire are independents. Contrast that with a near split down the middle between registered Republicans and Democrats (Republicans have a slight edge), and there is a whole lot of vote-earning going on here.

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.