Manchester, NH — The GOP fuglemen sit on the sidelines here and watch, as lonely as Kucinich volunteers. The action this year in New Hampshire is on the Democratic side, with a big independent vote as well. Some Republicans can’t resist the fun and sneak out for a little excitement on the bad side of town, but their numbers are rare and their influence unimportant. I nosed around New Hampshire some this weekend, poking around various political nooks, exploring old McCain arms caches and seeking the opinion of crafty old locals whose judgment I respect. I came here instead of Iowa because I think the ultimate story of the nomination will be determined not by what is obviously going to happen in Iowa, but what could happen here.

New Hampshire primary voters are quirky. They enjoy nothing more than murdering a front running candidate. This year they gleefully bludgeoned New Hampshire sure thing John Kerry. Normally that would be enough, but Kerry faded so quickly and Howard Dean climbed so fast that one wonders if the Granite State’s famous blood lust has settled. When Deans soars out of Iowa, will they punish him?

One of my snooping tricks was to show up unannounced at three interesting campaign headquarters within the same two hour time period on a Sunday afternoon. I wanted a comparative snapshot of each campaign at the same approximate time and place. After 20 years spent running campaigns, I can tell a lot by sizing up the feel of campaign headquarters two weeks out. My choices were Dean, who may be moving down, Clark, who many think is moving up, and Lieberman, who some think is finished and others think is inching ahead.

One advantage Dean has is he doesn’t have to spend a dime heating his warehouse sized HQ. Instead, they can warm the place purely on the furious hate vibes coming through the walls from Team Kerry, which ironically is headquartered on the opposite side of the same old mill building. The Dean HQ looks like the Dean hype. 100 kids on 100 computers working tirelessly. It feels like the world’s largest and most intense college radio station. Most of these kids have never worked on a campaign before, so nobody has taught them how to lose. The energy is palpable and kids are working on exactly the sort of thing that wins New Hampshire primaries; database building, voter ID, GOTV and event scheduling. A large section of people work exclusively to provide logistics for the thousand plus Dean volunteers expected to show up in NH to flush voters over the next two weeks. It is an innovative operation with obvious direction and purpose. If I were the other guys I’d be very scared.

The scrappy Lieberman campaign is bunkered down in a rambling firetrap that even the most parsimonious donor couldn’t argue with. They know third place or better is the only way out and Team Joe is focused and fighting to live by combining Nashua yuppies and older Manchester Democratic regulars. I was surprised at the considerable bustle and activity. I think Joe is inching up toward third.

Clark is indeed the flavor of the moment. But his HQs had less bustle than the others; the good general was in town and some staff was out with him. The Clark boomlet is real, but smallish; it’s not McCain type mania. Still, NH voters like to find a way to be interesting and if they decide to chill on Dean, Clark will get those votes.

My latest unscientific guess? Baring a huge gaffe, or a Kerry or Gephardt mega-upset in Iowa, I think Dean will win the New Hampshire primary, in the mid to upper thirties. But if Clark’s forward motion is not slowed by a gaffe or a torpedo from a rival and Iowa-irked New Hampshire throws its patented monkey wrench, Clark will finish just single digits behind Dean. Then the press takes over. Is the big story Dean’s rise from nothing to front-runner with back-to-back victories in Iowa and New Hampshire, or will they go gaga for Clark? Sorry Howard. The first story deserves the headlines, but the press sells out for the horserace every time. They’ll be mad for Clark, and it will be a two-man race to the 3rd, with Lieberman or Edwards in third. Dean still wins the nomination, but it is a race.