Manchester, New Hampshire - Ordinarily, New Hampshire is a pretty, north-eastern state that is visited for its tasty maple syrup and its reddening autumn leaves. But once every four years, a political circus comes to town as voters choose presidential hopefuls in the US' first-in-the-nation primary ballot.
On Tuesday, they will select candidates in a race that is defying expectations, with such political outsiders as Ted Cruz and Donald Trump on the right, and Bernie Sanders on the left, proving more popular than was anticipated and giving conventional candidates a run for their money.
Election fever is bringing voters out of the woodwork and some analysts predict record turnouts in the New Hampshire primary. One of them is Angie Fitzsimmons, from Londonderry, who says she wants to see a Christian in the White House.
"I haven't been very involved in politics most of my life, but the world is getting so crazy and I've got children and grandchildren and I had to get involved," Fitzsimmons told Al Jazeera, outside a diner in Manchester, the biggest city in the state.
Her husband, Bob, agrees. Two terms of President Barack Obama have left the US' borders unguarded as it is humbled by the likes of China, Iran's mullahs and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), he said. Now, he wants "someone I can trust".
"I was extremely disappointed seven years ago by our incoming president, who seemed to be downplaying America," he told Al Jazeera. "We are a great country and he seemed to be trying to diminish us by putting us alongside other countries."
|Angie and Bob Fitzsimmons are eager to vote in New Hampshire's primary on Wednesday [James Reinl/Al Jazeera]
'Whiter, older and more conservative'
Their sentiments are echoed across New Hampshire, a sleepy, chilly state where people are richer, whiter, older and more conservative than elsewhere. Some critics say it should not play such a big role in choosing Oval Office occupants.
The Fitzsimmons back Ben Carson, a retired neurosurgeon who expresses a frustration with Obama and the US' supposed relentless decline that was shared by many other presidential wannabes on the stage of the Republican Party debate on Saturday.
They seem destined for disappointment. Carson only polls at about three percent in New Hampshire, according to Real Clear Politics, an aggregator. But he remains upbeat, using sporting metaphors to excuse his weak numbers in New Hampshire and at the Iowa caucuses on February 1.
"In baseball, we don't call the game after two innings," Carson told Al Jazeera.
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Donald Trump leads the polls here with 31 percent, far ahead of rivals such as Marco Rubio, a Florida senator, and Ted Cruz, a firebrand Texan. Buoyed by his popularity, Trump has been less boisterous in his self-praise than usual.
"I don't know if I'm doing well or not. The polls say I'm doing well," Trump told Al Jazeera. "We have to win in this country. We don't win any more. I'm going to clean it up. We're going to have a great, great country again. We're going to make America great again."
On the Democratic side, Sanders, a dishevelled septuagenarian leftist, is polling ahead of Hillary Clinton, a former first lady and secretary of state, with 54 percent against her 40 percent. Their row over who is more progressive is winning Sanders supporters.
David Yepsen, a Southern Illinois University scholar, said the US is at a crossroads as it re-defines itself "in the post-Obama era". Frustrated by Washington's political elites, voters are shopping on the fringes for revolutionaries.
"There's anger on both sides. On the Democratic side, it's over income inequality and a shrinking middle class left behind by the nation's prosperity. For Republicans, immigration is a big issue that is driving a lot of the support we see for Trump and Cruz," said Yepsen.
|Donald Trump supporter Dean Blake holds a sign at the State House in Concord, New Hampshire on November 4, 2015 [Darren McCollester/Getty Images]
'Get out and meet the people'
The New Hampshire primary punches above its weight on the US political calendar. Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan saw their campaigns boosted after good shows here, while incumbent Lyndon Johnson decided to retire after a poor result in 1968.
According to Cecile Richards, a Clinton campaigner and president of Planned Parenthood, a health charity, New Hampshire voters "take their politics very seriously" and have a "proud independent streak" often choosing trailblazers.
In recent years, the state's independent-minded electorate has supported such underdogs as John McCain in 2000 and Pat Buchanan in 1996, both of whom ultimately failed to secure the Republican Party nomination.
New Hampshire's primary follows Iowa's less formal caucuses, and officials guard their position on the calendar fiercely. In 1977, the state passed a law requiring a seven-day window between its vote and "similar" contests elsewhere.
Democracy is woven in to the state, where each elected official represents about 3,000 constituents compared with more than 100,000 in many other states. This makes it a good testing ground for presidential hopefuls, said Sam Clovis, a scholar and Trump campaigner.
"Almost every neighbourhood has a representative in the state house. That's a remarkable amount of democracy in play," Clovis told Al Jazeera. "New Hampshire and Iowa are retail politics states, where you have to get out and meet the people."
But not everyone is sold by New Hampshire's democratic pedigree. Critics point to the demographics of a rural state where 94 percent of its 1.3 million people are white, compared with 67 percent of the US as a whole.
The state has fewer immigrants than elsewhere and is slightly older and richer, with a median income of $65,000, compared with $53,000 nationally. The first states in the election cycle should reflect modern-day, multicultural America, critics say.
According to Yepsen, the argument is viable, but the schedule is difficult to alter.
"It comes in cycles. Once each party's candidate is chosen, there is invariably a call to change the nomination process. But then, there is an election to win in November, and messing with the process is divisive," Yepsen said.
"Also, the nominee of each party will have done well out of the process, so they won't want to change it. That's why Iowa, New Hampshire and these early states keep going. It's political inertia."
Follow James Reinl on Twitter: @jamesreinl
Source: Al Jazeera