The Amoskeag Strummers had their banjos in hand, the Shriners were standing by their little red cars and the parade was about to begin. Then, across the lawn and into this classic New England small-town scene strode a tall, slim, implausibly handsome and commanding 60-year-old man. A leader, or a Brooks Brothers model. But wait. From another direction strode another man, also tall, also slim, also implausibly handsome. This one was 46 years old, maybe more Benetton than Brooks Brothers, just as commanding. The two converged in a manly embrace -- Mitt Romney, former Republican governor of Massachusetts, and Barack Obama, Democrat senator from Illinois, both chasing the presidency, both surrounded by the Milford High School fife-and-drum corps, a few reporters and me, the uncredentialed tourist. I stepped up, shook Romney's hand and wished him luck. "Well, thank you," he said. "I'll need that." To Obama I only nodded, because I'd already shaken his hand, wished him luck and met his wife, Michelle, the day before. He seemed to understand.

In fact, in four days of racing around southern New Hampshire in early September with no press pass or campaign connections, I shook the hands of eight presidential candidates -- an orgy of access that in California would have taken weeks and cost a fortune in campaign contributions.

Apart from the usual transportation, lodging and meal expenses, $50 for a floor seat at a Republican debate and $40 for a barbecue that was supposed to include U.S. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.), it cost me nothing. Between events, there was time for meatloaf at the Red Arrow Diner in Manchester, a stroll under the turning leaves and tall church steeple in the town of Amherst; and a seaside lobster roll lunch at Harpoon Willy's in Portsmouth. And I haven't even begun to tell you what I learned about Social Security "regressivity."

It's easy to forget, given the way candidates raise money behind closed doors in Southern California, that any American can step into the middle of all this patriotism, pandering, drama, debate, stagecraft and statecraft. But we can, and the show runs in New Hampshire for the next three or four months, depending on the primary election date that the state chooses.

In fact, hundreds of political amateurs and tourists join this ritual every four years, sometimes as campaign volunteers, sometimes as uncommitted voters shopping for a favorite, sometimes as simple gawkers impersonating New Hampshire voters.

"It's amazing to me, the access that the citizens of New Hampshire have to candidates," Princella Smith told me in Durham one day. Smith, a 23-year consultant who was raised in Arkansas and works for a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, had just driven eight hours from Washington and booked a room at the Hickory Pond Inn, all so she could volunteer a few days for Mike Huckabee, her former Republican governor.

Later the same day, I met Nancy Grimes, an executive whose business is based in Santa Barbara. Though Grimes had spent plenty of time in New England, she told me, she didn't dip her toe into campaign events until a 2000 rally for U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) in Portsmouth.

It was a bone-cold day, but that, she recalled, "was the first time that I've ever felt what it's like to really become part of the democratic process."

During the busiest weeks of the 2004 primary, recalled Darlene Johnston, co-owner of the Ash Street Inn in Manchester, "we had investment bankers from Seattle, attorneys from Philadelphia and schoolteachers from New Jersey, all working on different campaigns. And a reporter for the Christian Science Monitor. It was very interesting at breakfast."

My wife, Mary Frances, and I made our handshaking debut that same season. In the space of a long weekend of dashing town to town with a handful of friends, we caught half a dozen candidates -- all Democrats, since President Bush had no serious Republican challengers. In the bargain, we rubbed elbows with U.S. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and such media stars as Al Franken, Dave Barry and Chris Matthews. Like Grimes' introduction in 2000, it was very cold but great fun.

And this time around, the New Hampshire primary buzz sounds more loudly than ever for political junkies, for a couple of reasons.

First, this is the first presidential race with no incumbent president or vice president involved since 1928, so the towns and countryside are teeming with hopeful Democrat and Republican candidates. Second, the tradition of face-to-face "retail politics" in the run-up to New Hampshire's state-sponsored primaries and Iowa's party-sponsored caucuses may soon be obliterated by demands for simultaneous campaigning in multiple states.

Of course, you could argue that the system deserves obliteration, because it gives disproportionate power to two overwhelmingly white states whose populations amount to fewer than 5 million people. But since 1952, New Hampshire has been a crucial proving ground, where Edmund Muskie's campaign stalled after his enraged and perhaps tearful outburst at a "gutless" newspaper publisher (1972, in front of the Manchester Union-Leader building); where Jimmy Carter's surprise win put him on the path to the White House (1976); where Ronald Reagan ignored the agreed-upon rules of a debate but won the public-relations battle with the one-liner, "I paid for this microphone" (1980, in the Nashua High School gym); where Bill Clinton pronounced himself "the comeback kid" after withstanding revelations about his relationship with Gennifer Flowers (1992).

At least for now, running for president still means shaking hands and romancing voters in New Hampshire until your voice fails and your fingers go numb. And following the candidates means never standing still for long.

TIME FOR HANDSHAKESI started with an AFL-CIO Labor Day breakfast in Manchester -- a high school gym full of long tables, the tabletops covered with labor literature and orange juice in plastic cups. Glimpsing a half-familiar head of snowy white hair atop a blue blazer, I edged into the crowd and reached out a hand like a fisherman dropping a line. On the other end: Dodd, the Connecticut senator, eager to chat about the great weather and his commitment to organized labor.

At that point, I'd been in the gym for five minutes. Before 30 more minutes had passed, Obama had tiptoed in, blazer-less and tie-less, to quietly work the tables while other speakers took their turns at the microphone. I sidled up, gave appropriate space and respect to the Secret Service guys, grinned and gripped, and then snapped pictures.

Then I lingered awhile to hear the senators speak and check out their flesh-pressing technique. When another speaker mentioned his 36 years of union membership, Dodd stood to clap, causing the rest of the room to rise with him. When Obama was greeting a familiar face, he would offer a conventional handshake but apply a little English, like a bowler throwing a curve.

"We aren't here to win an election. We're here to transform a nation," Obama proclaimed an hour and a half later, having joined his family and donned a new shirt and tie for a rally in a Manchester public park. As he leaned into the crowd afterward, one supporter thrust a CD into his hands.

"Tunes," said the supporter.