In the state that hosts the first presidential primary, voters pride themselves on their role as the nation's interrogators, in effect one giant screening committee peppering candidates with every manner of question. So it came as no surprise when Macon Epps rose from his front-row seat in the local school cafeteria Friday to poke his finger at Bill Bradley.
"We hear an awful lot of promises from politicians," said Epps, a stout retiree with a hint of his North Carolina roots left in his voice. "What are the promises you will definitely keep?"
A cheer rose up from the crowd, but the politician standing before them making promises had a ready reply. "I'm not making you thousands of promises; I'm making a finite number of promises," Bradley said, listing seven priorities. "One last one I know I can keep: In everything I do I'll maintain a level of personal integrity and honesty the American people expect."
Bradley calls these sessions town meetings, and like Vice President Gore and several Republican presidential contenders, he hopes that by facing down the critics and the curious he can earn the blessing of this small state with its outsize influence.
"You have a chance to decide up close and personal is this the man we want to be president of the United States," Bradley told the 250 people who gave up a Friday night to hear him speak.
To be sure, there will be the modern tools of political warfare--commercials, debates, pitches over the Internet. But in one of the few remaining states where residents still gather each March at their annual town meeting to haggle over septic hook-ups and new library books, the presidential candidates are using this old-fashioned technique to define and market themselves for the Feb. 1 primary.
Candidates fielding questions is hardly new, says political scientist Joseph Zimmerman, who has written extensively on New England town meetings. But by appropriating the term, "they want to project an image of decision-making that will be democratic if they are elected."
Particularly in the neck-and-neck Democratic contest, Bradley and Gore are racing to match each other town meeting for town meeting. Last Tuesday, Gore was in Veteran's Hall in Derry, a bedroom community above the Massachusetts border. Bradley followed with the session in Somersworth and another in Laconia yesterday. Gore came back this weekend for two more in Plymouth and Manchester.
Bradley says he has been holding his version of a town meeting since last winter. Gore came late to the notion of freewheeling, less-scripted events, nearly panicking this fall when he realized his incumbent-style strategy of motorcades and photo opportunities merely reinforced voters' impressions that he was just another packaged pol.
The vice president has attempted to make up for lost time through sheer stamina, out-talking even the gabbiest New Englanders. "I'll be here all night if that's what it takes," he told 200 people in Derry. True to his word, Gore took questions for two hours, then spent another 60 minutes shaking hands, posing for snapshots and huddling with people one-on-one. At his open forum in Dover, janitorial crews stacked chairs and dismantled the sound system as Gore said farewell to the very last soul.
"This forum was much better" than Gore's visit to Derry last spring when he spoke on the dangers of suburban sprawl to an invitation-only crowd, said Cecile Cormier. "The other one was much more staged."
Although Bradley and Gore present similar agendas and often use the same language--"fix our roof while the sun is shining"--their dueling town meetings offer voters a close look at their distinct styles and different approaches to governing.
Bradley, in a hushed tone that borders on mumbling, paints his vision in broad rhetorical flourishes. He wants to protect the environment to leave behind "something bigger than we are and lasts longer than we do." He is running for president to help "each of us in our own way find some meaning in our lives that is deeper than the possession of material things."
The former NBA star and New Jersey senator quotes poetry and former coaches. Always in a suit--albeit often rumpled--Bradley lopes into a room, relaxed and confident. A group of Boston students "asked questions more to the point than most journalists," he remarked Friday.
Gore, by contrast, speaks loudly and forcefully, often quoting the Bible. He has ditched his suit in favor of khaki pants and cowboy boots. He moves in close to the questioner and often interrupts with his own questions.
Gore is a man of details, each program he proposes painstakingly outlined. Tapping his wealth of government experience, he moves from the patient's bill of rights to nuclear weapons in Russia to special education funding. At times, he risks losing audiences with such arcane phrases as "genetically modified organisms" and "constructive ambiguity," a reference to U.S. policy toward China and Taiwan.
The crowds, too, offer clues about a candidate's strengths and weaknesses. Here in Somersworth, numerous Democrats and independents said they were drawn to Bradley because he is "clean," "honest" and, most important, not associated with Clinton.
"I like Al Gore, but if the Democratic Party wants to win, we have to get behind someone who doesn't have the Clinton baggage," said restaurateur Wes Tuttle. "Bill is more dedicated to what he is talking about."
The Gore audiences tend to speak about his environmental record, his foreign policy expertise and his commitment to popular programs such as Medicare, Medicaid and Head Start.
"Those are my pet projects," said Dominic Amoroso, an upholsterer from Derry. "The man was ready for questions about the concerns of the day."
Though both candidates tack closely to their talking points, the town meetings can still provide unscripted glimpses into their personalities.
Topics such as computers light a spark in Gore. "There are a lot of dark alleys and red light districts and free-fire zones" on the Web, he said when asked about pornography on the Internet.
Friday night, as Bradley made his way to the door of the Maplewood School, Marilyn Donnelly asked him why retirees "with three homes" collect the same Social Security benefits as poor senior citizens who need the money more.
"I think you'll find the people with three homes are a very small percentage," he curtly replied as he turned to walk away. But then he quickly turned back to Donnelly and added: "I hear what you're saying; I'm going to take a look at the numbers."
CAPTION: Macon Epps of Dover, N.H., questions Democratic presidential hopeful Bill Bradley in Somersworth, N.H. "What are the promises you will definitely keep?" asked Epps. "I'm not making thousands of promises," Bradley responded.