Salena Zito

MANCHESTER, N.H. – Everyone in politics should heed the advice of baseball legend Casey Stengel: “Never make predictions, especially about the future.”

That never seemed truer than after spending several days in South Carolina with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then crossing the Mason-Dixon Line to do the same with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in New Hampshire.

Three thousand miles of back roads, Main Streets, interstates and airports, listening to voters of every shape, size, denomination and color, provides a unique view of the coming presidential election. In fact, it’s a lot like looking through a kaleidoscope.

From one-on-one interviews with both men, the most definitive prediction that can be made is that anything can happen between now and the first contests early next year.

Perry arrived in South Carolina – an early primary state where the slogan, “We pick presidents,” is proudly displayed at every event – in a decked-out campaign bus and an extensive advance team in dark glasses and matching suits, looking impressively presidential.

“There are probably a thousand other issues … but when you look at the core of what America needs, it is a president who believes in free enterprise,” he said.

“If you can free the job-creators from over-taxation and over-regulation and over-litigation, then they will risk their capital and create jobs, and Americans can get working again. That is the story of Rick Perry.”

Romney hit New Hampshire in a rented car, where move-in traffic at a local college caused him to be late for a town-hall event in Keene. So he got out and walked.

“Been there, done that,” he said of super-sized campaigns. “I recognize that that is not what creates a successful campaign.”

Perry was on fire in the Palmetto State, giving short, sizzling speeches to packed crowds in diners, restaurants and a community hospital.

He has locked up nearly a score of endorsements from local officials and is set to announce a South Carolina field staff of more than a dozen respected, connected GOP operatives.

At every event in New Hampshire, Romney, too, gave impassioned speeches – much longer and more detailed. He also took questions, tough questions; Granite State voters expect candidates to be schooled on the issues and remind them of that expectation over and over.

Before and after each event, he shook hands and talked to people, sometimes until his staff fetched him to leave for the next event.

He doesn't mind lingering, he said: “This is the best part of campaigning.”

Salena Zito

Salena Zito is a political analyst, reporter and columnist.