MANCHESTER, N.H. — Bereft of media hordes and nonstop campaign rallies, New Hampshire appeared to be an almost normal place Thursday.
But underneath the crisp blue sky and snowy woods, armies of politicos prepared for a showdown that will land the entire political universe on this state's doorstep by nightfall Friday.
With only four short days between Thursday's Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire's primary, the presidential candidates raced to move their campaign infrastructure 1,300 miles east while, staff here worked the ground for their arrival.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has so much riding on the outcome of Tuesday's primary that he returned to the state late Thursday afternoon — before the Iowa caucuses — and held campaign and media events throughout the evening.
The strategy means McCain will likely be one of the only presidential candidates making local news in Friday editions of the state's papers, said Jim Barnett, McCain's state campaign manager.
"As of Friday morning, New Hampshire will be the place to be, and we'll be here tonight so we'll be ready for it," said Barnett, who was busy Thursday morning organizing volunteers for the thousands of door knocks and phone calls they plan to do over the next five days.
Also out knocking on doors Thursday was Derrick Figures, a Washington lobbyist for the American Federation of Teachers.
Figures landed in New Hampshire Wednesday after volunteering to help get out the vote for Democratic candidate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), whom the teachers’ union has endorsed.
After four hours of work Thursday morning, Figures' four-person team had hit between 75 and 100 front porches and stoops in Nashua, some of which were already sporting signs and literature from rival campaigns.
"I think it makes a difference anytime you go out and have face-to-face communication with someone. It means a little more than a phone call or a piece of mail. It's personal communication, and people really care about that stuff," he said.
The 15 to 20 AFT volunteers are planning to knock on the doors of 1,500 of their 4,000 New Hampshire members.
The rest will be reached by phone calls and about five mail pieces, Figures said.
The afternoon offered a glimpse of the crush to come. An ABC crew was erecting a set for "Good Morning America" on Elm Street in the heart of downtown Manchester, and the press started to pour in.
"It's nearly impossible to get a hotel room in Manchester through the primary day," said Mike Skelton, an official with the Greater Manchester Chamber of Commerce.
He predicted the shorter-than-usual window between Iowa and New Hampshire might mean less money coming into the Granite States than the nearly $200 million linked to the 2004 primary.
And three fewer days between Iowa and New Hampshire will have a definite impact on the campaigns, said Andy Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
The compressed timetable will give candidates who lost in Iowa little chance to turn their fortunes around as the Iowa echo dominates the news cycle.
Even with eight days between the two contests in 2004, Howard Dean was unable to make up the 18 points he lost in a single day after his defeat in Iowa, Smith said.
Compounding the problem is that, with so many campaigns vying for attention, no campaign is going to be able to successfully break through all the noise.
Candidates trying to buy airtime won't fare much better. There's not a minute of commercial time left in the New Hampshire market, Smith said.
The New Hampshire debates this weekend will be one of the only opportunities for candidates to make news and even then it's likely to be a "NASCAR moment, when somebody crashes into the wall."
The sponsors of back-to-back Republican and Democratic debates — Facebook, WMUR and ABC — could bar second-tier candidates, ncluding Democrats Joe Biden, Chris Dodd and Dennis J. Kucinich, as well as Republican Duncan Hunter.
And, more controversially, Fox News hasn't invited Republican fundraising star Ron Paul to participate in a Sunday forum it's hosting in Manchester.
Fred Thompson, who lags behind Paul in polls here, was invited.
And Paul, for whom New Hampshire offers perhaps the best chance to translate his zealous online fundraising and support into votes, may hold an alternative event Sunday if Fox doesn't reverse course, said spokesman Jesse Benton.
"We're not going to skip a beat over this," said Benton. Paul plans to attend a series of house parties with undecided voters, Benton said, and to campaign with Barry Goldwater Jr. — son and namesake of the small-government Republican icon — Sunday and Monday.
Coming out of Iowa, campaigns will have to be sure to prioritize their resources in New Hampshire, said Sue Casey, who played key roles in the New Hampshire campaigns of former Democratic candidates Gary Hart and John F. Kerry.
For instance, if candidates have a strong ground game, they must be careful not to cannibalize those staffers to help produce campaign events.
"Before you know it, you've done five days' worth of events, but you haven't made the 100,000 phone calls. You don't have your precinct captains walking one more time. You don't have the food for the volunteers and all that little stuff not getting done is going to cost you," she said, adding that a successful get-out-the-vote effort can bump a candidate's total 5 percentage points.
Those extra points could be crucial in an election the secretary of state is predicting turnout would exceed the record high of 396,000 voters in 2000.
And while snow still blanketed the ground and the temperature hovered in the single digits Thursday, the forecast was calling for an unseasonably warm day Tuesday.