Voter: "Get us out of Iraq."
Wesley Clark: "Tell me your name."
Voter: "My name is Louise. I'm a long-time daughter of the state of New Hampshire. And we need to get our children out of Iraq!"
Clark: "We're going to get them out of there. They shouldn't have been over there."
Voter: "We never should have been there! An unpopular position, but nevertheless...."
Clark: "Help me!"
Clark: "Fill in that [election] card!"
U.S. election campaigns are characterized by candidates greeting voters, shaking hands, and asking for support in towns big and small across the United States, much like the above exchange from the New Hampshire campaign trail between a voter in that tiny northeastern state and Wesley Clark, a retired U.S. Army general and former supreme allied commander of NATO.
Along with eight other candidates, Clark is campaigning to become the Democratic Party's challenger to President George W. Bush, a Republican, in national elections on 2 November.
Clark is not the Democratic front-runner. That distinction, for the moment at least, goes to Howard Dean, a former governor of Vermont. So Clark and the other candidates -- including Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt, Senator John Kerry of Massachusetts, and Senator John Edwards of North Carolina -- are campaigning hard in New Hampshire and Iowa.
The process of electing the Democratic nominee involves six months of state-by-state primaries or caucuses. And the states that vote first have an enormous influence on the rest of the campaign.
This year, what happens in Iowa and New Hampshire -- which vote on 19 and 27 January, respectively -- could well determine who will go on to win the Democratic nomination. Their combined population is just over 4 million, yet their influence far outweighs that of California, the most populous state with 34 million people, or Texas, the second-largest with 22 million.
Patrick Basham of the Cato Institute in Washington says Iowa and New Hampshire will decide who will be the front-runners going into the next round of voting on 3 February, or "Super Tuesday," when six mostly southern states cast their ballots.
"I suspect it will be a two-person race by the time the first southern voting takes place," Basham said. "Almost certainly, Howard Dean is going to be one of those. The question is, will it be Gephardt or Clark who's the second person?"
Candidates who do poorly in the first voting will face a harder time attracting enough money or media coverage to stay in the race. They likely will include Congressman Dennis Kucinich of Ohio; Carol Mosely-Braun, a former senator and ambassador; civil rights activist Al Sharpton; and perhaps even Senator Joseph Lieberman, Al Gore's running mate in the presidential election of 2000.
How can two small states wield so much influence? Blame it on scheduling and the power of the media and money. Basham told RFE/RL that the top finishers in Iowa and New Hampshire will get a huge boost in campaign contributions, which in turn will fuel the candidate's publicity through primaries from March to June.
"If you get the early votes, then you signal to both voters and financial contributors -- and the rest of the country -- that you're the person most likely to win. That means people are more interested in your campaign, they're more likely to donate to your campaign. So it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said.
According to polls, Dean is in the best position to emerge as the front-runner after Iowa and New Hampshire. He already has a double-digit lead in the polls in New Hampshire and trails Gephardt by only the slimmest of margins in Iowa.
If Dean can win the caucus in Gephardt's own region in Iowa and go on to take the New Hampshire primary, Gephardt's campaign may be dead in its tracks.
If Dean and Gephardt split Iowa and New Hampshire, they will be the front-runners going into Super Tuesday, which would represent a last chance for the remaining top candidates -- Clark, Kerry, and Edwards.
Just a few weeks ago, the Dean juggernaut appeared too formidable for any candidate to challenge. But Clark, Kerry, and Edwards have made small comebacks in the polls and boosted their fund-raising after a series of controversial statements by Dean.
Dean recently said that Saddam Hussein's capture did not make the United States any safer. He also said he could not judge how Osama bin Laden, if he is ever captured, should be punished for the 11 September attacks -- a comment critics said only confirmed that he is "weak" on national security issues.
Dean's fiery rhetoric has alarmed many in his party. His outsider campaign has angered Democratic elites by taking shots at the party's Washington establishment.
Speaking recently in New Hampshire, Dean demonstrated a style that critics label as abrasive. "If we had a renewable energy policy in this country, and stopped sending the oil money to the Saudis, we might have a stronger defense -- and I might not have had to say the other day that the capture of Saddam Hussein didn't make us any safer because we haven't paid attention to Al-Qaeda and to North Korea and to stopping the teaching of hate to small children all around the world," he said.
However, Dean has used his stance against the Iraq war and his attacks against Bush to galvanize an army of liberals who have made him the leading Democratic fund-raiser. In fact, Dean has already raised more cash -- $40 million -- than his closest rivals, Kerry and Gephardt, combined. And the leading fund-raiser at the start of every U.S. primary since 1980 has gone on to win the nomination.
But while telling, that statistic by no means assures Dean the nomination.
Dean is seen as the top Democratic candidate with perhaps the worst chance of actually defeating Bush. Voters are worried he lacks the resolve and vision to carry out the war on terrorism. According to a recent poll by ABC and "The Washington Post," Bush has a 67 percent to 21 percent lead over Dean when voters were asked whom they trust more to handle national security.
Jane is a middle-aged postal worker from Ohio. She recently expressed her reservations about Dean during a focus group of Democratic voters organized by the University of Pennsylvania: "[Dean has] no experience. I'm concerned about his ability to deal with the foreign countries. And he's gotten himself in enough trouble in our own country. He shoots so much from the hip that I feel like, in a different sense, it's another George W. Bush."
Clark, Gephardt, Lieberman, and Kerry are viewed by analysts as having a better chance of beating Bush in a national election. Both Kerry, a Vietnam war hero, and Clark -- who led NATO's war against Serbia in 1999 -- are seen as being able to stand up to the Republicans on issues of national security. Lieberman and Gephardt supported the Iraq war and are also perceived as tougher on defense than Dean.
Alan is an Ohio lawyer who took part in the focus group. He reiterated the common perception that Dean's antiwar stance could doom the Democrats' chances against Bush, who is riding a wave of popularity because of Hussein's capture and a current economic upturn.
"The paramount foreign policy problem the United States has is what do we do with the radical Islamic movement. And Bush's notion of spreading liberty and freedom [in Iraq and the Middle East] is something that this country has stood for since it was founded. And to the extent that Bush, again, in whatever haphazard fashion he may be doing it, is committed to spreading freedom throughout the world, I don't see how Americans cannot support that," he said.
If Clark, Edwards, or Kerry can manage a surprise showing on Super Tuesday on 3 February, they could still have a chance going into the next major voting day on 2 March, when Democrats in 11 states -- including California and New York -- go to the polls.
The official nomination won't be made until votes from each state are tallied at the Democratic National Convention, which will be held in Boston in late July.
But, if history is any indication, the race for the nomination may well be decided by the time the last ballot is counted in New Hampshire at the end of this month.