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Coffee, Pie and a Side of Politics

(By John Poole -- Washingtonpost.com)

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By Anne E. Kornblut and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 25, 2007

MANCHESTER, N.H. Elaine Boule met Sen. Barack Obama when he came through the Red Arrow diner on a campaign stop a few weeks back.

"He shook hands, he gave autographs. It was just so genuine," she said.

More recently, Sen. Joe Biden paid a visit.

"It was awful. He had every camera with him," Boule said. "Customers couldn't get seats."

Boule, 47, has a unique vantage on the 2008 presidential race. She is the manager of the Red Arrow, a low-slung diner on a narrow street at the geographical heart of the 2008 presidential nomination process. Open 24 hours a day, with a constant stream of patrons filling its 32 seats, the Red Arrow is a must-stop spot for candidates roaming the state that will hold the first primary of 2008, about six months from now.

And so until then, Washington Post staff members plan to visit the Red Arrow on a regular basis, as well -- to gauge diners' moods, check up on candidates who have stopped by recently and ask Boule whether she has settled on a candidate yet. For the record, she is a Republican but is thinking of voting for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton or Obama.

Iowa is the other state that will play a crucial role early in the nominating process. In Des Moines, the state capital, the Waveland Cafe is a lot like the Red Arrow: a place for people who like to talk politics. We'll be visiting there regularly, too, right up to the Iowa caucuses.

We'll report back periodically from both places on this page. Video reports will be available on The Trail, the daily diary of the 2008 campaign, which made its debut yesterday on washingtonpost.com. For a video introduction to the Red Arrow and the Waveland Cafe, go to: http://www.washingtonpost.com/thetrail.

Voters of all ages come through the Red Arrow at all hours (the overnight shift, from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., is a favorite for firefighters, hospital workers and, during the winter, snowplow drivers). On their minds, based on interviews, are some familiar concerns. They are unhappy about the war in Iraq, anxious about health care and immigration -- and skeptical that any of the candidates could really fix any of it. Republicans who voted for President Bush expressed regret for doing so; Democrats said they worried about nominating a woman or an African American in a country they are not sure would elect either president.

Two female voters, both 19 years old, said they would never vote for Clinton because of her husband's impeachment scandal in office -- even though neither was old enough to clearly remember what had happened in the late 1990s.

Boule, behind the counter from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day, hears lots of political chatter among her customers, whom she describes as mostly jaded about the process.

She herself has never voted for a Democrat. But after her husband's youngest brother died in Iraq, and as the mother of five children -- two of them teenagers without health insurance -- Boule said she wants something different. Someone competent.

"I'm a Republican, and I see nobody in the Republican Party that I feel as though I would vote for," she said. "Giuliani's a Republican, isn't he? He's the only one I can see taking the race."

Videos from the two diners come over easy at www.washingtonpost.com/thetrail.


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