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New Hampshire’s primary scene is smaller, but it’s still a big stage

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LACONIA, N.H. — Superficially, something’s not right.

It’s the snow. There isn’t any. The fields are brown and raw; the mountains have no life to them. Ponds have frozen, and rafts of ice navigate the smaller rivers, but the political placards that are supposed to be stuck in snowbanks are instead planted in dirt or attached to guardrails. It doesn’t look like a New Hampshire primary.

The scale of the phenomenon has also been downsized from four years ago. There’s only the one contest. The field is relatively small, and the news media this time will have just a handful of candidates to chase around.

But this is still the big stage for presidential primaries. In this last week before the vote, the Republican candidates have to connect, close the deal and finesse unscripted encounters with ordinary folks while the national media observe and document every syllable.

New Hampshire’s primary has a way of creating history in an eyeblink, of taking spontaneous moments and off-the-cuff remarks and chiseling them into legend. You can’t take your eyes off a candidate lest he break into tears or threaten to hoist someone on a pitchfork.

The biggest question Wednesday was whether Newt Gingrich, wounded after seeing his lead in Iowa obliterated by negative ads, would go after Mitt Romney with fangs bared. He essentially promised as much Tuesday night, when, seething after his fourth-place finish in the caucuses, he congratulated Rick Santorum but did not mention Romney by name.

“We’re not going to go out and run nasty ads,” Gingrich said. “But I do reserve the right to tell the truth. And if the truth seems negative, that may be more a comment on his record.”

But the man who appeared Wednesday morning at the Holiday Inn in Concord, N.H., seemed mellow and uncaffeinated. Speaking to a room packed with students, he put on his Professor Gingrich persona and meandered through a primer on the origins of our political system. The students may have wondered if, after the talk, there would be a test.

Gingrich spoke about the Northwest Ordinance of 1787. He talked of Lexington and “the other” Concord. He mentioned George Washington at Valley Forge. He annotated the backstory of the Declaration of Independence, with a reference to the Scottish Enlightenment.

Just as the assembled media corps expected him to pivot to an attack on Romney, Gingrich began discussing Captain John Smith’s activities at Jamestown.

Later in the day, at an old textile mill here, he retailed some more history: “Societies which accelerate the rate of change are dramatically wealthier and better off than the societies that slow down the rate of change. The founding fathers knew this.”

He added: “Washington, for example, imported a new breed of sheep from Spain.”

But sandwiched between the two events, Gingrich held a news conference in which he went straight at Romney, the “Massachusetts moderate,” questioning his tactics and honesty. In an icy, all-business tone, he skewered Romney for ideological inconsistencies over the years and for kowtowing to Democrats and liberals as governor.

Talking to reporters at the end of the textile mill visit, he vowed to press ahead: “In this campaign so far, I’ve been dead once, resurrected, limping along, the front-runner, drowned in a tidal wave of Romney and Ron Paul negative ads, recovered and survived.”

Another survivor, at least for one more week, is Jon Huntsman Jr., a former two-term Utah governor who spent the days before the Iowa vote stumping here in the Granite State. He gambled that he couldn’t lose in Iowa if he didn’t compete.

Nationally, Huntsman barely fogs a mirror. In New Hampshire, though, his Santorumesque diligence — he said at a crowded Tuesday night town hall that he was holding his 150th public event in the state — has earned him third place in the latest statewide poll.

Huntsman is certainly attractive on the surface: trim, with hair graying diplomatically. He’s got a gorgeous, sprawling family, including a trio of prepossessing 20-something daughters who have their own Web site and parody YouTube video, and who showed up in Peterborough to help work the crowd.

Huntsman opened his stump speech by handing the microphone to his wife, Mary Kaye, who gushed about her husband’s virtues.

The former governor then made his pitch. “I am the underdog in this race. I need your help. You know what else? New Hampshire loves an underdog!”

There’s an old-fashioned quality to his vocabulary — he says “darn,” and you expect any second that he’ll lob a “gee willikers” or a “golly.”

On Tuesday night, he said: “We’re passing down this thing called humanity to the next generation — who we are, our values, our standing in the world, our economic performance — in this kind of shape? Give me a break!”

And: “I am who I am. I’ve got a record I’m proud of. You might not like 100 percent of it, but look at it! It’s pretty darn good!”

When the gathering was over, Huntsman and his family stayed, working voters one by one, until the place was almost empty but for the volunteers removing the folding chairs.

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