Iowa?

"Where's Iowa," Biotechnologist Ron Kinder asked jocosely at the breakfast of the Bedford Rotary on the morning of the Iowa caucuses.

The 7:30 a.m. Monday meeting proceeded in a great rush of fellowship and mirth. Dollar fines have been levied on members who showed up without ties or their Rotary buttons. "Happy dollars" have been awarded to those who shared "pleasant experiences." One so honored graphically recounted an episode at the town dump--which one heckler reminded him is called the "transfer station." A Monte Carlo night, with blackjack tables, has been announced.

But not all were enjoying what guest speaker Tom Rath, famous Republican hand and a Bush honcho, called the "eight best days in politics"--the interval between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, the first in the nation. They were the undecideds.

They expected no help from Iowa's parlor politics at the Bedford Rotary breakfast or the subsequent Manchester Rotary lunch. Another undecided Republican, John Jackman, who is in commercial real estate, said dismissively of the action elsewhere, "Iowa's a party at somebody's house, we're the real thing."

To watch the Rotarians thrashing about, you wonder about the political siege under which the Granite State has been for the last six months--the flood of television commercials, the countless town meetings and other candidate visits. This is the most ornery electorate and also the most spoiled.

But as decision day neared, they illustrated how hard it is to make a choice in good times. New Hampshire's dilemma was poignantly expressed in a question addressed to Rath: "Should we vote for the very best man or one we think can win?"

The questioner was Alan Goedecke, a decorating consultant. New Hampshire has a somewhat better record of making statements than picking presidents. Tripping up front-runners is the high fun here. In 1996, New Hampshire Republicans voted for Patrick J. Buchanan, who is no longer in the party.

Goedecke is torn between Gary Bauer, the anti-abortion crusader, and Alan Keyes, whose angry absolutes he finds appealing. He will, however, happily support whomever the Republicans nominate.

"Right now, I would like to send a message."

Surprisingly, George W. Bush's enormous tax cut is not the issue it once would have been in this supposedly tax-obsessed state. For many years, taxes were the "third rail." But this year, the New Hampshire State Legislature passed an income tax, which never got to the governor's desk.

Chris Emerson of Manchester's First Congregational Church, who is one of the state's many registered Independents, confessed to being "all over the map." He sees Vice President Gore as "terminally tarnished by Clinton." Bush is "attractive, but I don't believe a lot of what he says." He likes John McCain, but "I am concerned about his ability to create a consensus. [Bill] Bradley, I think, is well intentioned but naive."

With marketing manager Dave Danielson, McCain's political reform platform "doesn't ring true" with his acceptance of corporate funding. But Bush gives him "the feeling of being steamrolled"--a sentiment expressed by others in Manchester.

Ron Kinder says of Bush, "He irritates the hell out of me." Naturally, he has met him several times and complains that "with all his money and all his big-shot backers, when he shakes hands with you, he's looking elsewhere." On the other hand, he thinks McCain is "obsessed" with campaign finance.

By and large, the good burghers and civic boosters share the GOP resistance to changing the campaign funding laws. They generally like things the way they are. They don't like change, and they want to be sure that while seeking some modification of Oval Office morals, they don't threaten the good times they are enjoying.

Internet service provider Chris Rand is swinging between Bush and McCain. He says he hasn't "paid enough attention to the issues so he's going to vote on character, morals and integrity." When George W. Bush's father campaigned here in 1992, the state was an economic basket case. Today the unemployment rate is 2.1 percent.

In informal polls at both Bedford and Manchester, undecided came in first by a wide margin. But some time before next Tuesday, all this churning and yearning will cease. All of the undecideds will close a deal and march bravely to the polls. The great virtue of these difficult people, who rather enjoy their reputation for being hard to please, is that they turn out. It is the most powerful reason that it is entitled to the privilege of being our first primary.