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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

For voters, it's up close and personal

Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Indiana Mayor

Democratic presidential candidate former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks at a Meet Pete campaign event at Plymouth State University on Monday in Plymouth, New Hampshire. Credit: Getty Images/Win McNamee

New Hampshire voters have the gift of access.

There are around as many registered voters to woo in the whole state as there are in Suffolk County. But thanks to New Hampshire's momentum-building first-in-the-nation presidential primary, which takes place on Tuesday, voters there are gifted with the presence of White House hopefuls in their high schools, houses, and streets.

So you have voters like the one in Laconia who told me he personally asked questions of former Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, and Sens. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker. There are town halls where you can weigh direct responses about nuclear proliferation or the Middle East.

Plenty of residents have stories about getting up close and personal with a potential holder of the nuclear football, an uncommon ability to judge the gist of a politician. Take Kim Hurd, who remembered meeting 2016 Republican longshot Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. Hurd, 53, had been sitting on the ground while waiting for the start of a local parade when the senator hustled over to shake her hand. Don’t stand up, he said, “You pay too many taxes in this town.”

“We do,” Hurd says, though she wasn’t exactly sure what Graham meant.

Or Gary Coffin from Concord, who wanted to take his kids to see Hillary Clinton. But before the event, they were getting fidgety. So Coffin, 57, took them to a candy shop to buy their continued interest. What do you know, Clinton was right there in that candy shop. Say hello!

There is the gift of stuff, like the Andrew Yang book, “The War on Normal People,” which was being handed out for free at an event last week.

There is the benefit of proximity, with state political brokers later getting positions from winning candidates, state senators getting sleepovers with possible leaders of the free world. 

The candidates know what’s expected of them, adjusting their stump speeches to accommodate local issues like a particularly intense opioid crisis. Last week, Buttigieg repeated the dad joke about hearing the compliment that he was in voters’ “top seven.” It’s not crazy to cast a wide net when you can take a look at the whole set.

There are plenty of good reasons why New Hampshire’s early status, along with that of Iowa, has endured for years.

It’s a small state candidates can criss-cross and advertise in without being billionaires. It’s a good test for the general. It’s overwhelmingly white, but has been supportive of black, Catholic, and female candidates. Unless you want to have a single national primary — which would make it even harder for underfunded candidates — someone has to go first. Granite Staters right and left are united on the issue. When asked on a snowy day last week why New Hampshire should lead, Joe Sweeney, communications director for the state GOP, said, “New Hampshire just does it better.”

But imagine another possibility, where other states like New York got some of the love via a system of rotating primaries or a reshuffling of the deck. Imagine seeing an out-of-state senator gripping hands on some Long Island Rail Road platforms, asking why the Islanders weren't back in the Coliseum. Imagine a crusading member of Congress visiting Brentwood High School, trying out his or her terrible Spanish and taking student questions. How long would it take someone in Hicksville  or Huntington to bend a candidates’ ear about the lack of affordable housing? Maybe the result would be more national discussion of suburban issues, a benefit for the region. And maybe voters would be more engaged, with political possibilities literally knocking on their doors, asking to come in, see what government can do for you.

Must be nice.

Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday's editorial board.