12/26/2011 10:45 pm ET Updated Feb 25, 2012

Primary School

Manchester, New Hampshire -- "Are you guys volunteers or paid staffers?" I naïvely ask two Gingrich supporters I'd been talking to at Newt's New Hampshire HQ in Manchester. "I'm the state director for New Hampshire," one of them tells me. That such a prominent politico in a presidential campaign would take the time to speak to a student writing for an obscure online British newspaper (albeit one with an impressive name, Erudition) was one of several great surprises I experienced during a brief visit to the Granite State.

As a British student living in England, I had previously only been able to enjoy the race for the Republican nomination in front of a computer screen in the UK. So when I went to New Hampshire last week I was naturally excited to experience first-hand America's famed retail politics. But I was still in for a shock -- or rather, a number of shocks:

1. The amount of action

Before I went there I was told by a prominent American political journalist not to expect too much action in New Hampshire at this time of year. Most of the candidates would be camped out in Iowa, he told me. How wrong he was. In just two days, I saw plenty, attended three town-hall events and shook the hands of three of the major Republican candidates: Ron Paul, Jon Huntsman and Newt Gingrich. And just sitting and talking to voters in the Red Arrow Diner, a regular haunt for candidates down the years, is enough to soak up the sense of American democracy in action.

2. The touchy-feely candidates

When you see candidates in the flesh you get a sharper sense of them than you ever could from afar. When Newt Gingrich stepped on to the stage, the first thing that struck me was just how plastic he looked: indeed, the man I'd seen on my computer screen back in the UK looked more real than the man who was speaking in front of me. Ron Paul was endearingly scruffy. Jon Huntsman was tanned (more Florida than New Hampshire), and surprisingly small.

3. Up close and political

I had heard that campaigns in early-voting states like New Hampshire and Iowa run intimate operations but I was amazed at just how close I was able to get to the campaigns. Beyond my conversation with Newt's state director in New Hampshire, I was also introduced to someone on his communications staff who was kind enough to allow me to attend a post-event press briefing. I could even have asked the former Speaker a question if I'd had the courage to put my hand up. Huntsman's spokesman graciously drove me from Manchester to his candidate's event in Stratham.

4. Serious voters

To get a better sense of the primary I spent much of my time in New Hampshire speaking to voters. What became clear to me early on was how seriously people in New Hampshire take their responsibility as constituents of the first-in-the-nation primary state. Wherever I went the voters there, whether Democrat, Republican or independent, were offering me their two-cents on the race.

5. All politics is national

You might think that in New Hampshire, in the most hometown of settings, you'd find an affirmation of Tip O'Neill's old adage that all politics is local. Yet at the town-hall events I attended, all the policy questions asked were about national issues, ranging from health-care to job creation to anti-terrorism. Local voters are mindful that they're judging potential national leaders.

These surprises brought home to me the whole point of the process. Right now is the moment in the campaign where voters (and visiting British students) can get to know the candidates and inspect them up-close. This won't be possible for much longer: in just a few weeks the mom-and-pop retail politics of Iowa and New Hampshire will end and the wholesale battle will begin. But at a time when many voters I spoke to felt a disconnect between the people and their politicians, I found the direct access and personal contact with would-be presidents deeply refreshing.

I left New Hampshire with more than just a sense of the abiding strengths of American politics, though. I took with me several bumper stickers and badges, a CD of songs dedicated to Ron Paul (they are surprisingly catchy), and a recipe from The Ron Paul Family Cookbook ("28 pages of recipes to warm your kitchen and your heart") that made its way onto my Christmas plate this year.