CONCORD, N.H. -- For Bill Gardner, the veteran New Hampshire secretary of state, this September might as well be January. Reporters from four continents are thronging his office in numbers reminiscent of the crowds he usually sees only in the weeks leading up to the New Hampshire primary, the first in the nation every four years.
"This attention is new," the longtime Republican election official told a visitor. "Once the primary is over, it's usually very quiet here. We never see the candidates again."
Not so in 2004, when the battle for New Hampshire's small cache of four electoral votes has drawn all four members of the national tickets, their spouses and their surrogates here for frequent campaign stops.
To its surprise, New Hampshire has found itself a battleground, joining West Virginia and New Mexico on the short list of low-population states so closely contested that both Republicans and Democrats believe they have no choice but to battle for a narrow advantage.
It certainly was not that way the first time a George Bush faced a Democrat from Massachusetts. In 1988, when the current president's father ran against Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, New Hampshire was never a worry. Vice President Bush trounced the man from the neighboring state 62 percent to 36 percent.
But the New Hampshire that confronts President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) this year is a far different state.
When the elder Bush won easily in 1988, he was extending a GOP dominance that was broken by only two Democrats -- Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson -- in the previous 60 years.
It was a state of frugal Yankees, averse to taxes and antagonistic to intrusive government. Its philosophy was embedded in its motto: "Live Free or Die." Republicans ran almost everything, rarely challenged by a weak Democratic Party with little leverage outside the ethnic (French Canadian and Irish) blue-collar cities of Manchester and Nashua.
In the next decade, however, the Republican Party blew up, the Democrats transformed themselves and New Hampshire emerged in its present form -- a true battleground state.
It was Bush's race for reelection in 1992 that saw the GOP implode. A lending crisis and real estate collapse that shuttered five banks triggered the worst economy in New Hampshire since the Great Depression. Bush was challenged in the primary by a populist Republican, Patrick J. Buchanan, who played on those fears and "tapped into a protectionist sentiment we hadn't seen before," said Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), whose father, former governor John H. Sununu, was running the Bush campaign.
What had once been a solid, conservative majority broke into pieces -- some sticking to the old libertarian principles, others moving to a more populist right-wing philosophy, while still more joined the growing numbers of independents in looking for candidates -- such as H. Ross Perot -- who showed no deference to the old establishment.
In 1996, the right-wing populists delivered the GOP primary to Buchanan over establishment candidate Robert J. Dole. In 2000, the independents (who can vote in either primary) and moderate Republicans combined to support Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and give the younger Bush a shellacking.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was remaking itself from an urban, Catholic, blue-collar base to one rooted in the college towns of Hanover, Durham, Plymouth and Keene. Concord, the state capital, went from an all-Republican legislative delegation to one controlled by Democrats, and thousands of recent arrivals for the high-tech industry were attracted by the Democrats' new emphasis on environmental and education issues. When Democrats finally elected a governor in 1996, she was Jeanne Shaheen, a League of Women Voters type who campaigned for statewide kindergartens.
It was in this radically transformed configuration that Bush and Al Gore fought to a draw in 2000 -- Bush prevailing by 7,211 votes -- one-third the number captured by Ralph Nader, who is on the ballot again this year. Shaheen and her campaign-manager husband, Bill, complained that Gore never visited the state during the general election campaign and made only a minimal effort to win it. "We've been waiting four years for the chance to do this right," Bill Shaheen said last week, "and this time, we've got the commitment from the campaign and the candidate to win it."