To many Americans who casually follow presidential politics, the two states that will kick off the nominating process in a few weeks are mentioned in the same breath so often that they might as well be one place: Iowaandnewhampshire.
Iowa and New Hampshire are both many things: Cold. Sparsely populated. Overwhelmingly white - 95 percent in Iowa, 96 percent in New Hampshire. And, this time of year, resented by America. Surveys show that most voters think the states have a wildly disproportionate influence on who winds up on the November general election ballot.
But when you talk to people who live in those states or who have worked on campaigns there, a different picture emerges: One of two states that are deeply passionate about politics, but have distinct cultures and go about choosing their candidates in significantly different ways.
One way the states certainly differ is in their reputations. Conventional wisdom says Iowans like their politics nice and clean, while New Hampshire voters like their campaigns to be like their state's terrain - rough and tumble. But like many political clichés, the truth is not quite that simple.
"As an observer of what's happening here, when candidates are positioning their historical actions against each other and their positions, that's not dirty. It's the dirt Iowans don't care for, the dirty tricks, the 'swift-boating' sort of thing," Iowa pollster Ann Selzer said. "But I cannot tell you it doesn't work. People like to paint this rosy picture that we turn out backs at a dirty word. But that's not to say we didn't hear it."
If Iowa's reputation were true, after all, it's unlikely the state would become the first battleground between Democratsand , or see its airwaves carry the first quasi-negative ad of the Republican campaign, a spot highlighting the candidate's differences with on immigration.
"In both states, they want to see the candidates and they want to see them campaign," said Carl Forti, Romney's national political director. "They know how this works and they don't have a problem learning about the records of the other candidates either."
That doesn't mean that anything goes in New Hampshire, though. Going negative can have stiff consequences, said Secretary of State Bill Gardner. His knowledge of the state's politics goes back decades, but he only has to go back to a gubernatorial primary in 2002 to find an example of mudslinging backfiring, In that instance, the candidate who stayed above the fray and was expected to finish far behind the leader nearly pulled off a win.
"A lot of people felt it was a reaction to the two of them going after each other," Gardner said. "Some people say that about [Dick] Gephardt and [Howard] Dean in Iowa, in comparison."
An operative with one Democratic campaign who has worked in both states said any perceived differences between Iowa and New Hampshire are based more in their regional identities - the homey Midwest versus hardscrabble New England -- than anything else.
"Iowa, being a Midwestern state, there's this notion of 'Iowa nice,'" he said. "It's a very welcoming culture. They welcome people into their homes. They say hello to them on the street. It's a culture that's very warm and friendly and open. In New Hampshire, I don't think it's much different, but I think there's a little more edge there."
That edge might come from enduring a constant barrage of elections. While Iowa's election cycles are like most other states, New Hampshire is practically an experiment in direct democracy: Town meetings are of critical importance and, outside of the U.S. Senate, just about every office in the state is up for re-election every two years. Despite a population of only 1.3 million, its legislature is nearly as large as the entire U.S. House.
The latest information on the primary and caucus dates in 2008.
In New Hampshire, the presidential race is just the center ring of a 10-ring circus.
"We're always in election mode and you can vote half a dozen times during the course of one year," Gardner said. "You've got your town election, your school elections, special elections for both that happen quite often, and every other year you add to that a state primary, a state general election, and in this kind of year, we're voting January 8, there'll be town meetings in March, school district meetings in the spring, a primary in September, and a general election."