Rupert Cornwell: Out of America

If you want to meet the next leader of the free world, head to New Hampshire
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Let me start with a confession. I love the New Hampshire primary. For me it's the single most enjoyable event on the presidential election calendar, a wonderful interlude of retail politics, where candidates are forced to go up close and personal with small groups of voters.

With a bit of patience and deft positioning, even the foreign correspondent who has a potential readership of zero New Hampshire voters can get a brief one-on-one with the man who just might be the next leader of the free world. Alas, this precious institution is under threat.

The problem is that the first-in-the-nation primary in this small New England state - with less than 0.5 per cent of the US population, overwhelmingly un-black and largely non-urban it is pretty unrepresentative of the country as a whole - has had a quite disproportionate role in picking party nominees. The odd candidate ignores Iowa, but none dares pass on New Hampshire. The primary may be a year off, but contenders and potential contenders have been paying visits for months.

Oddly, the only person who hasn't been there yet is Hillary Clinton, but that was simply to maintain the pretence that she hadn't made up her mind to run. Hillary did the rounds in Iowa last week, and any time now she'll be sampling the pancakes and muffins at the Merrimack Restaurant on Elm Street, Manchester, an undistinguished eatery, but a must-stop on the primary trail. Rudy Giuliani - who could be her opponent in the 2008 presidential election - was already in town, speaking at the annual meeting of the state Republican Party.

The ritual is informal and good fun, but it's also in danger. Not unreasonably, other states are jealous of New Hampshire's outsize role. Why, they ask, should their voters have no other job than to place the crown on the head of a candidate already robed and anointed by a couple of hundred thousand fussy New Englanders? Precisely that happened in 2004, when John Kerry won Iowa and New Hampshire, wrapping up the nomination by early February, before the other 48 states had cast a vote.

That's why four large states - California, Illinois, Florida and New Jersey - long squeezed out of the primary process could hold their primaries as early as 5 February next year, a couple of weeks after New Hampshire. In places like this, retail politics simply doesn't reach enough voters. Making an impact means costly TV advertising. The charm of Iowa and New Hampshire is that they give the under-funded dark horse candidate a chance.

Under the emerging system, a dark horse wouldn't have time to put together the money and organisation to have a chance in, say, California, with 16 times more convention delegates than New Hampshire. Making matters worse, Nevada plans to barge in between Iowa and New Hampshire, upsetting the whole cosy arrangement.

But don't write off New Hampshire. Some of its myths may have crumbled - of late, candidates (Bill Clinton in 1992, George Bush in 2000) have won the White House even though they lost there. But its lore is irresistible: of Eugene McCarthy's quixotic crusade in 1968 that brought about the end of Lyndon Johnson's presidency; of Democratic frontrunner Ed Muskie, who wept (or was it just melting snow on his cheek?) after an unkind leader in the local Manchester paper, blowing his 1972 candidacy in the process.

New Hampshire helped to launch Jimmy Carter in 1976. It was also where Bill Clinton, by sheer and visible willpower, rescued his 1992 campaign from charges of philandering and Vietnam draft dodging - and also where I got to chat with Hillary for five minutes in a Nashua shopping mall.

There's a lot of fight in the old place yet. For one thing, state officials say they'll move the primary forward and hold it as early as it takes to preserve its status - even if that means voters have to pass on the Christmas shopping to take in Hillary, Obama and the rest.

More importantly, there's an unspoken media conspiracy in favour of New Hampshire. For political reporters, it is a four-yearly reunion, in the same snowy towns, the same comfortable hotels, and same cosy restaurants. It's a short drive from Boston, and all the action takes place within an hour's drive of Manchester, the state's largest city. New Hampshire is gambling that the press won't let go. And if the press won't let go, you can be sure that the politicians won't either.