Street theater, baby.

Three kids are out here in the cold impersonating Buddhist monks, wearing maroon robes with gold sashes, carrying black briefcases that say: Al Gore Finance Committee. Get it?

This is the scene outside. Not inside, where it's toasty, where the men running for president are getting their faces powdered for TV because they're Big Dogs. No, we're talking out in the snow, where the little dogs are running tonight. On South Commercial Street, behind a picket fence, a long pass from the front door of WMUR-TV. Call it Rally Row. Scratch that. Call it Alley of the Absurd, a stretch of pavement turned mosh pit containing an odd collection of dueling campaign workers, protesters, groupies and circus performers. People like Justin Bonner, a k a Buddhist monk.

"This is our first election and we wanted to shine a light on the finance subject," says the sophomore, who is unaligned with any candidate and who drove up from Fitchburg State College in Massachusetts for a night out at the debates. "We wanted to do something fun."

Oh, how they've debated and debated and debated this campaign season. And tonight they debated once more. Except tonight was special--tonight marked the granddaddy of election-year talkathons, a presidential double-header. First the Republicans, then intermission, then the Democrats. Seven men in suits at one television station, squabbling intermittently about China and abortion and who's got the better vision for the country. They jabbered on about real mosh pits--like the one Alan Keyes flung himself into the other day--and about the hard-rock band Gary Bauer erroneously called "The Machine Rages On."

It got to be downright comical. The first presidential debate about mosh pits. But that was inside.

Outside, baby, it was even wilder. . . . Paaarrty!

"It's a mob out there," observed Connie Hair, Keyes's press secretary, who was decidedly inside. "It's cool."

Yeah, cool.

Cool is hundreds of signs planted in the snow, forming an encampment that snaked along Commercial Street and rounded the corner to Granite. Forbes signs kissing Bush signs. Yuck! The Teamsters have a truck and they're blasting Junior Walker and the All-Stars from their speakers. Steve Forbes has a bus and he's pumping some James Brown. On the front lines along Alley of the Absurd are mostly college students whose arms apparently don't get tired of hoisting those seven-foot wooden stakes, the heavy ones on which three or four candidate banners are stapled.

There's a strategy to playing guerrilla politics in the pit. And it is this:

"To be loud and to be up front," says Mike DelBene, the 21-year-old state youth coordinator for the Forbes campaign. Just a minute, DelBene says. Hold on. He is talking to the Forbes bus command about 50 yards in back of him. He's wearing an earpiece and is barking something into his sleeve. He's the director of the Forbes ground forces in the pit. He orders up a chant, accompanied by a drum roll.

"We want Steve! We want Steve!"

Not good enough. "I can't hear you!" DelBene shouts.

"We believe in Steve! We believe in Steve!"


Hmmm, tired of this, the smaller McCain forces strike back.

"Go, John, go! Go, John, go!"

Jonathan Freimann, a Harvard law student, is one of McCain's Massachusetts youth coordinators. He explains the McCain strategy. "Each group's got their base. You try to defend your base, inch into other campaigns' bases, and try to get in the camera shots."

Gotta get on TV or in the newspapers. That's the game.

Uh-oh, a little sign skirmish. It's the Bush people and the Forbes people.

"Play fair!," admonishes Mike Montagne, a Londonderry attorney who is backing the Texas governor. The Forbes offender just smiles.

What is fair in a street fight?

"Holding your own," says Montagne, "but not pushing other signs out of the way. Give us our voice."

Lyndon LaRouche doesn't have a voice. But he's got a couple of guys on the corner who've been there since 2 p.m. "Pot Heads for Gore," says the LaRouche sign. Literally. Andrew Spannaus is wearing a pot on his head. And on his sign there's a drawing of a joint. A car pulls up and a woman with a camera rolls down her window on the passenger side. "Hey, can I get a picture of that?"

But of course. Spannaus poses.

At 8:30 p.m., the Republican debate ends. Halftime. Inside, the consultants go to war. Truth is not their objective. They are in the political massage business. Then come the candidates, one by one to the stage, to take questions from the press.

Outside, Alley of the Absurd has been seized by Bill Bradley's troops.

That's because the Goreski Gang has retreated. Been there, done that. Specifically, the Gore people did that at 6:30 when the news cameras were still interested in the outside action. And the Bradley people are smarting because they weren't there. Alex Grodd, Bradley's Manchester field coordinator, has a bullhorn and leads the call-and-response.

"What was the Bradley campaign doing between 6 and 8:30?"

"Talking to voters!"

"What was the Gore campaign doing?"

"Waving signs!"

Well, not exactly Jesse Jackson quality, but it was something.

Inside, Bradley and Gore go after each other ferociously--attack, counterattack. Charge, rebut. No letup. Their aides' little fingers must be tired distributing all these fact sheets that purport to back up the debate statements.

Outside, Mackie White, a Merrimack real estate broker and Forbes sign-waver, is about done with the evening. But what an evening. What a scene. Not that he's surprised.

"Hey, you're in New Hampshire," he says. "We take this stuff very seriously up here."

And one more thing. "You can also see that insulated underwear sales are great up here as well."

CAPTION: In Manchester, political boosting comes in all shapes, sizes and species.

CAPTION: Forbes supporter Lee Herman moves to position his candidate, or at least his signs.