A Sept. 28 article incorrectly described New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner as a Republican. He is a Democrat. (Published 9/29/04) ----- A Sept. 28 article on New Hampshire politics incorrectly said that the Democratic candidate for governor, John Lynch, is a state senator. (Published 9/30/04)

For Bill Gardner, the veteran New Hampshire secretary of state, this September might as well be January. Reporters from four continents are thronging his office in numbers reminiscent of the crowds he usually sees only in the weeks leading up to the New Hampshire primary, the first in the nation every four years.

"This attention is new," the longtime Republican election official told a visitor. "Once the primary is over, it's usually very quiet here. We never see the candidates again."

Not so in 2004, when the battle for New Hampshire's small cache of four electoral votes has drawn all four members of the national tickets, their spouses and their surrogates here for frequent campaign stops.

To its surprise, New Hampshire has found itself a battleground, joining West Virginia and New Mexico on the short list of low-population states so closely contested that both Republicans and Democrats believe they have no choice but to battle for a narrow advantage.

It certainly was not that way the first time a George Bush faced a Democrat from Massachusetts. In 1988, when the current president's father ran against Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, New Hampshire was never a worry. Vice President Bush trounced the man from the neighboring state 62 percent to 36 percent.

But the New Hampshire that confronts President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) this year is a far different state.

When the elder Bush won easily in 1988, he was extending a GOP dominance that was broken by only two Democrats -- Franklin D. Roosevelt and Lyndon B. Johnson -- in the previous 60 years.

It was a state of frugal Yankees, averse to taxes and antagonistic to intrusive government. Its philosophy was embedded in its motto: "Live Free or Die." Republicans ran almost everything, rarely challenged by a weak Democratic Party with little leverage outside the ethnic (French Canadian and Irish) blue-collar cities of Manchester and Nashua.

In the next decade, however, the Republican Party blew up, the Democrats transformed themselves and New Hampshire emerged in its present form -- a true battleground state.

It was Bush's race for reelection in 1992 that saw the GOP implode. A lending crisis and real estate collapse that shuttered five banks triggered the worst economy in New Hampshire since the Great Depression. Bush was challenged in the primary by a populist Republican, Patrick J. Buchanan, who played on those fears and "tapped into a protectionist sentiment we hadn't seen before," said Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), whose father, former governor John H. Sununu, was running the Bush campaign.

What had once been a solid, conservative majority broke into pieces -- some sticking to the old libertarian principles, others moving to a more populist right-wing philosophy, while still more joined the growing numbers of independents in looking for candidates -- such as H. Ross Perot -- who showed no deference to the old establishment.

In 1996, the right-wing populists delivered the GOP primary to Buchanan over establishment candidate Robert J. Dole. In 2000, the independents (who can vote in either primary) and moderate Republicans combined to support Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and give the younger Bush a shellacking.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Party was remaking itself from an urban, Catholic, blue-collar base to one rooted in the college towns of Hanover, Durham, Plymouth and Keene. Concord, the state capital, went from an all-Republican legislative delegation to one controlled by Democrats, and thousands of recent arrivals for the high-tech industry were attracted by the Democrats' new emphasis on environmental and education issues. When Democrats finally elected a governor in 1996, she was Jeanne Shaheen, a League of Women Voters type who campaigned for statewide kindergartens.

It was in this radically transformed configuration that Bush and Al Gore fought to a draw in 2000 -- Bush prevailing by 7,211 votes -- one-third the number captured by Ralph Nader, who is on the ballot again this year. Shaheen and her campaign-manager husband, Bill, complained that Gore never visited the state during the general election campaign and made only a minimal effort to win it. "We've been waiting four years for the chance to do this right," Bill Shaheen said last week, "and this time, we've got the commitment from the campaign and the candidate to win it."

That will not be easy. New Hampshire has the strongest economy in New England, with 3.8 percent unemployment, and unlike 1992, the housing market continues to boom with new migrants, including wealthy second-home buyers, moving into the state.

But there is concern about the quality of jobs. John Crosier of the Business and Industry Association said, "There's a transition from higher-paying manufacturing jobs to lower-paying service and retail jobs that people find worrisome." Production of circuit boards and other high-tech products has shifted to low-cost countries. Ross Gittell, who tracks the economy for the University of New Hampshire, said the state's 2 percent job growth in the past year ranks high nationally, but the loss in recent years of 20 percent of the high-tech manufacturing jobs is a negative factor. Wal-Mart is the biggest private employer.

Sununu said he thinks the economy is the biggest hurdle for Bush to overcome, but his colleague, Sen. Judd Gregg, said the anti-Bush sentiment is focused more on Iraq "and the question of how we're going to achieve our goals and get out."

Gregg has nominal opposition in his race for reelection and has turned over much of his organization to Bush, for whom he is serving as a sparring partner in practices for the debates. But Republicans are worried about the governor's race, where freshman Gov. Craig Benson, who has feuded with the GOP legislature for his two years in office and antagonized some key party leaders, is facing a wealthy businessman, state Sen. John Lynch (D), in a very close contest.

Kerry kept the New Hampshire organization headed by the Shaheens hard at work after his victory in the January primary, and Gregg said Kerry came out of the July Democratic National Convention in Boston with a slight lead in New Hampshire. The Democrats' coordinated campaign is the beneficiary of a nominally independent effort by America Coming Together, which has had two dozen paid organizers and scores of volunteers doing door-to-door canvasses since April, emphasizing such down-home issues as the cost of medications and health care.

Republicans have tried to match the effort with a largely volunteer force. Some veteran GOP leaders fret that the national headquarters has skimped on yard signs and other traditional "visibility" elements of a New Hampshire campaign. But Tom Rath, a longtime party leader here, said the "micro-targeting" of independent voters -- the key to the election -- by professionally manned phone banks "is the most sophisticated I've ever seen."

"They can tell you the 15 people in your precinct who get Golf Digest and probably send them a letter endorsing Bush from Arnold Palmer," Rath said.

On both sides, local operatives say they have never received the top-level national attention they are getting this year. Recent private and public polls show Bush at least even with Kerry -- and perhaps a step ahead.

Political researcher Brian Faler in Washington contributed to this report.

President Bush leans for a kiss from supporter Pam Anderson in Derry, N.H., where voters used to being wooed in January are getting autumn attention.