GWEN'S TAKE -- January 6, 2012 at 12:55 PM ET
New Hampshire: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
Northfield, N.H. | The scene is a rustic old building perched on a pretty river in the center of the state. The walls are knotty pine and the pot-bellied stoves are putting out real heat.
It is standing room only in the middle of the day and the middle of the week, and everybody is there for ... Rick Santorum.
The last time I saw the former Pennsylvania senator on the campaign trail, he was making a lonely bid for attention at the Iowa Straw poll last August. That day, there was barbecue and dancing in Michele Bachmann's tent. Rick Perry was about to announce he was getting in the race. It was all very exciting, with music and balloons and faux voting. And Santorum could not buy attention for love or money.
Needless to say, things have changed.
Unlike the prolonged Iowa Caucus campaign, which ended in a finish so tight that they were still fighting by week's end about whether Romney had won by eight or nine votes, New Hampshire's final week is cold, slippery and intense.
Advertising crowds the airwaves accusing Romney of being insincere (Huntsman) and the world being on the precipice of disaster (Paul). One New Hampshire voter who is planning to vote Republican this year told me she got a call during the week from the Obama campaign.
No one, it seems, can afford to look away, or at least not for long. Romney, whose double digit New Hampshire lead has begun eroding since Iowa, ducked out to campaign in South Carolina, but was back in the Granite State the next day. Ron Paul took a few days off, but arrived by week's end to energize his incredibly loyal band of followers.
Newt Gingrich is hopscotching everywhere, promising at almost every step to take his best shot at Romney. And Jon Huntsman, who forsook Iowa on the off chance that he could undercut Romney, a former Massachusetts governor, on practically his own home turf, is hoping for a Santorum-like surge of his own.
Huntsman has been telling anyone who will listen that the Iowa caucus results, where Romney won about a quarter of the vote, were really a repudiation of the frontrunner -- because 75-percent of the caucus-goers raised their hands for someone else.
That leaves Huntsman to make his own pitch for his share of that 75, be they conservative, moderate or -- especially -- among New Hampshire's famous, feisty independents.
"No question about it, if you were to disaggregate our town hall meeting in New Hampshire, the average town hall meeting, you would see that there are Republicans, a whole lot of independents, and even Democrats who are showing up," Huntsman told me.
When I asked him whether that makes him the choice of moderate Republicans, he resisted the characterization. He has, he said, "cross-cutting appeal."
"I have a hard time with people putting labels on your forehead," he said. "I think that's unfair in politics. And some people actually confuse a moderate temperament with a moderate track record."
Huntsman, who snagged a Boston Globe endorsement on Friday, may be the only Republican candidate resisting labels. Almost everyone is a "consistent conservative," "a leader," or, in the case of Ron Paul, "the one we've been looking for.
Sometimes this makes for jarring juxtapositions. Watching 2008 GOP nominee John McCain take the stage to endorse Romney on Wednesday did nothing to erase the memory of McCain savaging Romney in this same primary contest only four years ago.
And watching Rick Santorum struggle through a crush of voters (and let's face it, reporters like me) -- only weeks after being treated like political road kill -- is another reminder that topsy-turvy politics never gets old.
New Hampshire voters, it's over to you.
Gwen's Take is cross-posted with the website of Washington Week, which airs Friday night on many PBS stations. Check your local listings.