On a recent Saturday morning, veteran Democratic National Committee member MarDee Xifaras asked the 200 volunteers gathered in a school cafeteria here to picture the electoral map of the United States and focus on those states colored neither red nor blue.

Eyes closed, she pointed at the air like a weatherman, rattling off the closely contested battleground states: Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida and a host of others.

"But don't forget the smaller ones," she told the recruits, who had driven north from the Massachusetts that morning to be trained as political ground troops who will be deployed across the country for John F. Kerry's White House bid. "If this state had gone for Gore, he would be president right now. We would absolutely love you to get your feet wet in New Hampshire."

Budding political activists have been coming to the Granite State for a generation -- stuffing envelopes, making phone calls and knocking on doors during its pivotal early primary. But with a population of 1.3 million, the state has long been an afterthought in the general election. With only four electoral votes, New Hampshire has usually prompted candidates to focus elsewhere.

Not this year. Just 7,211 votes separated Al Gore from a victory over George W. Bush here -- an election that would have swung to the Democrats with a Gore victory here or in any other single state.

"Usually, all we see of the campaign is the underbelly of the airplanes as they fly overhead," said Thomas Rath, a lawyer in the state capital, Concord, and a longtime GOP strategist. "No question in my mind: This is the most organized I've ever seen a presidential campaign up here, so far out from the election. This year, nobody is forgetting about New Hampshire."

In 2000, neither campaign began advertising on the state's main television network, ABC affiliate WMUR, until June. This year, the two campaigns began in March and had saturated broadcasts as of mid-June with more than $2 million in commercials, roughly $1.2 million for Bush and $880,000 for Kerry, according to a survey of the station's public records.

Bush has also bought TV ads in Burlington, Vt., whose airwaves reach across state lines, but the gap between the two campaigns' ad spending has been more than filled by Democratic-leaning groups, known by their Internal Revenue Service designation as "527s." Led by Media Fund, headed by former Clinton aide Harold Ickes, they have spent nearly $800,000 on television ads here.

"Compared to other states, we're a relatively inexpensive media market," said station manager Jeff Bartlett. "You can get a lot of bang for your buck."

Both sides agree that the race in this state will be close. The latest poll by the University of New Hampshire showed Kerry at 49 percent and Bush at 45 percent. But Bush has closed the gap since the week after the January primary, when Kerry led 53 percent to 39 percent, after months of sustained attacks on the president by the Democratic rivals.

The traditionally conservative state -- in which Republicans outnumber Democrats 36.7 percent to 25.6 percent -- has voted for the GOP candidate in six of the past eight presidential elections. But with Bush winning so narrowly here in 2000, a year in which he lost the Republican primary to Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), Kerry campaign officials say they see an opportunity for their candidate, who is well-known in the state after almost 20 years as a senator from neighboring Massachusetts.

"Kerry has a real chance," said University of New Hampshire professor Andy Smith, especially if he can attract supporters of former Vermont governor Howard Dean.

Kerry and Bush have both visited New Hampshire since the primary -- with Bush arriving just days afterward -- and a host of high-profile surrogates, including Vice President Cheney and Gore, have also come to campaign.

The rank-and-file ground campaign is also well underway.

On March 25, the Bush campaign hosted what some in the local news media said was a state record of 140 house parties in a single night. Hosts played videotaped messages from the president and talked issues with about 2,000 attendees.

Last weekend, the Bush team, which includes five paid staff members in the state and more than 7,000 registered volunteers, conducted a dress rehearsal of its preelection get-out-the-vote drive, to be rolled out in the days leading up to the Nov. 2 election. Through a combination of phone calls and knocking on doors, 400 volunteers reached 33,000 voters over seven days, according to the campaign's New England regional chairman Jim Tobin.

"The president is taking nothing for granted here, and our people are already stepping up to the plate," Tobin said in an interview at the campaign's state headquarters in downtown Manchester, the state's largest city. Part of the message to voters, he added, will be that the economy is improving, as evidenced by the 2,700 jobs the state gained last month.

"We anticipate it is going to be very close and are running an organized, grass-roots campaign," Tobin said. "The Kerry folks are relying on this vast network of 527s."

In 2000 Gore did not have a significant New Hampshire organization until September. "He got going too late and didn't put any resources here," said Bill Shaheen, a senior Kerry aide and husband of former governor Jeanne Shaheen, Kerry's national campaign chairman. "We're not going to make that mistake this time."

Kerry's New Hampshire operation, which includes three paid staff members, led the Saturday training session for out-of-staters, followed by a day-long barrage of door-to-door campaigning designed to hit 4,000 to 6,000 homes in four cities and towns.

State Director Nick Clemons, who assumed his job in March, said among the first priorities was contacting activists and officials who had made Dean's New Hampshire organization so strong. Dean's state political director was brought on board, and his state director is now working for the DNC.

The Saturday canvassing effort in Derry, a city of 34,000 in the southern part of the state, targeted independent voters, who make up about 37.7 percent of the electorate here. Volunteers were advised to minimize partisan rhetoric when appealing to voters still on the fence and to focus on issues that resonate broadly, such as the environment and Iraq, where several Granite State units are serving.

Those from Massachusetts were told to simply say they were with the Kerry campaign, if asked where they were from. In a state with many transplanted former residents of the Bay State, Kerry's residency cuts two ways. Because voters know him well, he will be less susceptible here to attack ads designed to define him, Smith said. But, he added, many New Hampshire residents equate Massachusetts with high taxes and liberalism.

The volunteers -- more than half of whom said they had never worked on a campaign -- included longtime Kerry fans, as well as those who had supported others in the Democratic primary.

"We realize we can do a lot more good up here than we can in our state, where we know Kerry's going to win," said Paul Stein, a 58-year-old lawyer from Westport, Mass., sitting under a painted mural in the cafeteria that read "hungry as a bear."

"That's how we feel about this election," he said pointing to the slogan, "hungry."