Welcome to New Hampshire, where it seems like everyone's met the next president

DERRY, United States -- These diner waitresses carry anecdotes of presidential candidates like so many plates of barbecued steak tips and Hungry Boy Specials.

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The wall of pictures attests to the famous names who've wandered into MaryAnn's Diner over the years: Bill Clinton, Al Gore, Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Chris Christie and, just the other day, Jeb and Barbara Bush.

While scarfing down a corned-beef hash, a customer says he saw Hillary Clinton twice in the same day last week. He's less enthused by the daily phone calls he gets from pollsters.

Welcome to New Hampshire.

Being a small state that hosts an early primary means that, every fourth February, residents see their main streets, eateries and high-school gyms inundated with people aspiring to lead the free world.

Makes for pretty good gossip around the counter.

On this day, the women reminisce about their all-time favourite customer. It's a landslide consensus: the 42nd president, who worked table after table and then, when he was finished, went outside and did the same thing down the block.

"Bill Clinton," said manager Linda Guilnet, who's worked at the diner since it opened in 1989.

"He just went around to everybody. Then took a walk outside. He went down to the lights and came back."

One waitress says Ohio Gov. John Kasich stole one of her jokes, repeating it to aides: "Did you hear that that actress got stabbed, Reese what's-her-name?" "Witherspoon?" "No, with a knife."

They've just become Barbara Bush fans.

The former first lady was there with the latest family member to seek the presidency. Jeb seemed alright, they said. But his mom was a delight.

A third waitress was especially impressed by how well the 90-year-old has held up: "She don't have a damn wrinkle."

A few towns away, another New Hampsherite is less impressed that Bush has hauled out the family. Ari Pollack says he's been considering voting for Bush, but thinks leaning on mom smacks slightly of desperation.

Pollack has seen five different candidates in this election cycle. He would have seen a sixth, but the Hillary Clinton rally was full and he couldn't get in.

He's been going out because his 11-year-old son has taken an interest, and he's happy to encourage it. The boy got a signed poster from Marco Rubio on Sunday.

Who were the best performers? Rubio and Chris Christie were the most electrifying, he said -- especially the New Jersey governor, who's apparently a natural with a crowd.

But he was most impressed with Jeb.

He wasn't quite the entertainer, Pollack said, but he'd mastered every issue and pulled out well-researched, statistically-supported answers while taking every crowd question.

Elsewhere in the country, the streets don't carry much evidence of an election yet. But the snowy roadsides of New Hampshire are sprinkled with the blues, reds, and whites of competing campaign signs.

People's homes are turned into field offices. Out-of-town campaign operatives board up in spare rooms.

"It's a fun environment to be in," Pollack says.

"It will all come to an end on Tuesday -- all these buses will leave. All of you (media) folks visiting us will leave."

Some will be thrilled to see it end.

A woman at a hotel bar in Exeter grumbles about getting five or six pollsters' calls per night: "I stopped answering my phone three months ago."

The waitresses complain about media cameras bumping into customers.

One local recalls that it used to be more intimate when a politician strolled into MaryAnn's. But it now feels like the billion-dollar operation that American electioneering has become, with big entourages followed by big media hordes.

Pollack is less cynical.

He says his state has an important responsibility. Nobody has ever won the presidency in the modern primary era without performing well in one of the first two states: Iowa or New Hampshire.

That makes these few hundred thousand voters some of the most powerful in the world, and the waitresses who swap tales with these voters and journalists have power too.

"People take it pretty seriously," he said.

"We're making a decision for the rest of the nation. To at least help narrow the field, to put some candidates in front of the rest of the nation that have been vetted.

"The field is about to narrow."

So the diners should be slightly less crowded in South Carolina -- the next voting state.


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