N.H.: Stay true to grassroots tradition

In case you haven't noticed, the grueling political marathon known as the 2008 New Hampshire presidential primary has already begun.

During the next year, the state will have its traditional platform of hogging most of the limelight in the primary vetting process.

With it comes pride and a responsibility to put aspiring presidents to the test, not only for our own state and regional issues, but for the country as a whole.

Given the stakes and issues that will be discussed and debated throughout the state and country during the coming year -- the Iraq war, combating terrorism, homeland security, education, taxes, the federal budget deficit, economic insecurity, global warming, health care, Social Security and a forward-looking energy policy -- there will be ample opportunity for everyone in the state to take part in the dialogue. It's a rare opportunity to look these candidates in the eye and to make one's voice heard on this front line of history.

It was a sign of the times that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois, formally announced via the Internet Tuesday his launching of an exploratory committee for a presidential run.

That Obama, a relative novice who made headlines last month with his appearance in New Hampshire that drew large, overflow crowds, chose the Internet route of communication is a prelude to a potentially dramatic change in how the presidential primary might unfold.

For example, we might see fewer of traditional candidate walk-the-street and small coffee shop appearances and more big-event extravaganzas, while intense grassroots organizing -- the type that drove the outsider candidacy of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean in 2003-04 and that led to an upset victory for now-Democratic Congresswoman Carol Shea-Porter of Rochester -- takes place in homes and meeting places.

A crowded roster of candidates from both parties are already staking out ground in the state.

On the Democratic side, Obama joins Sens. Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden of Delaware, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut; Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack; the 2004 vice presidential candidate and former North Carolina senator, John Edwards; and Rep. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio. Former U.N. Ambassador and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, 2004 presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts and perhaps 2000 presidential nominee Al Gore will join the fray.

The Republican slate is less crowded but equally competitive with Sen. John McCain of Arizona, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

We encourage all the candidates to not let big money and big-event campaigning rule the day. The upsets, renegade challenges of previous primaries -- those of Sen. Eugene McCarthy in 1968, Jimmy Carter in 1976, Sen. Gary Hart in 1984, Pat Buchanan in 1996, and Sen. McCain in 2000 -- could be a thing of the past if we allow the primary to become little more than an extension of the popular television show "American Idol."

We should not surrender the close-quarter vetting process that makes the New Hampshire experience unique.