SALEM, N.H. (AP) — Ann and Jon Vitti hopped on a flight from Los Angeles to snowy New Hampshire last week to witness first-hand what they can't see on their TV: The more personal side of presidential politics.
"The campaign's always over by the time it gets to California and we never get to see it, so we had to go to the campaign," Jon Vitti, a television writer, said Friday night after watching Chris Christie take voters' questions for nearly two hours in Salem, New Hampshire.
The Vittis are just two of many voters who have flocked to New Hampshire as political tourists in the week leading up to the state's Feb. 9 presidential primary. They come from as far as California and as nearby as neighboring Massachusetts to engage in an up-close civics lesson and pose direct questions to the potential next president, an opportunity virtually unheard of in the rest of the country.
While the campaign plays out through televised debates and advertisements in the rest of the nation, the town hall meeting is a staple of New Hampshire campaigning. At these events, held in high school gymnasiums and VFW halls, voters seek detailed explanations from candidates on everything from drug addiction to stemming the rising costs of health care.
It's here that voters can witness poignant or unscripted moments. After a woman told an emotional story about her son's fight against drug addiction, for example, John Kasich offered to call the young man and offer words of encouragement. Christie, ever the showman, asked one of his staffers to pull a dollar out of his pocket and hand it to a young voter in the crowd at a recent town hall as a means of mocking Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders' plan to make college tuition free.
Alex and Peter Tsipis, brothers from Wayland, Massachusetts, wanted to see Kasich up close to make sure he was as great a candidate as they believed. They made a 45-minute jaunt to Nashua on Sunday morning, arriving two hours early to get front-row seats. The brothers, 20 and 18 years old, respectively, came away with selfies and stronger convictions that Kasich is their guy.
"Seeing it up in person, you really get your own perspective on it and you can interpret it any way you want," said Peter, a high school junior who will vote for the first time on March 1. "I really loved the whole format."
Les Liman of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, flew to Manchester in early January to stay with an old friend and take in the scenes. Over two and a half days, he saw Kasich, Christie, Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina and Rand Paul. Scott Landry, meanwhile, took a quick drive over the border from Massachusetts so his 14-year-old son, who writes a political satire column for his middle school newspaper, could see Christie and Rubio up-close. Landry said despite living nearby, this trip was his first time coming to New Hampshire for a political event.
"Every four years I want to do it," he said.
Efforts to build a marketing campaign around the primary were quickly blocked in 2007 by Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a fierce defender of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary status. At the time, Gardner said he didn't want to give other states the impression that New Hampshire fights to be first for the money that comes from an uptick in hotel stays and restaurant visits.
"Some people accuse of us being so adamant about protecting it because we do it for the money," Gardner told The Associated Press then. "That's not why we do it."
Indeed, New Hampshire natives and visitors alike see the primary as a valuable opportunity to press candidates on the issues that matter before the campaign moves to a bigger stage. Dan Kipnis, a retired fishing captain, ventured from Miami Beach to New Hampshire this week to press Jeb Bush and Rubio about climate change and rising sea levels.
Asked why he didn't wait until next month when Florida holds its presidential primary to bring up the issue, Kipnis said, "New Hampshire is where all the voting begins."
"I want the presidential candidates to talk about it — now," he said following a Bush town hall. "We can't wait."
AP writers Sergio Bustos and Holly Ramer in Concord, New Hampshire, contributed to this report.