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It's Wooing Time in N.H.: Just Ask Mark Thurston

He gets a campaign serenade from Lamar, eats pastries with Bob

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WHEN policeman Wayne Vetta came home one night recently, his answering machine contained phone messages from two new friends: Republican presidential candidates Bob Dole and Arlen Specter.

Not that Mr. Vetta's political connections are unusual in these parts. Local real estate broker Tom Stawasz has hosted White House wannabe, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm on his weekly radio show. And boat salesman Mark Thurston has been personally serenaded on the piano by ex-governor of Tennessee Lamar Alexander.

It's all part of retail politics, New Hampshire-style. The state's famous primary election is now just 10 months away -- and that means New Hampshire residents are up to their earflaps in Republicans who want to be president.

In a small state that prides itself on snowdrifts, tax aversion, and Yankee reserve, TV commercials aren't enough. New Hampshirites expect to meet candidates in person. Voters up here have been passing first judgment on presidential candidates since 1952 and are wary of politicos who won't get a little slush on their shoes.

So every week or so, the candidates fly to New Hampshire to win endorsements the old-fashioned way. This involves wearing a wool hat, eating boiled food, and talking about taxes and gun control with someone whose four-wheel drive vehicle is not an affectation.

Take the experience of Mr. Thurston as an example. By day, Thurston is the bookkeeper at his family's marina here in tiny Weir's Beach. By night, he's one of three commissioners in rural Belknap County and vice chairman of the state Republican committee.

These credentials make Thurston an attractive podium ornament for visiting pols -- especially in New Hampshire, where podiums can often be two milk crates turned upside down.

Since his favorite choice, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, decided not to run, Thurston has been courted for an endorsement by every presidential contender except Pat Buchanan.

Indeed, Mr. Buchanan has some catching up to do. Just about anybody with a pulse and a car in this state has met at least one of the candidates in person. When Thurston asked one city councilor what he thought of a candidate, he said: ''I don't know. I've only talked to him three times.''

Earlier this month, Thurston took a trip to Washington that shows what a popular guy he is.


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