NORTH CONWAY, N.H. — In autumn, the faraway hills here are so ablaze with color — shimmering reds, deep oranges — that no single hue or tint stands out. But in winter, the North Country becomes a portrait in black and white, and this November, the contrasts already seem to have sharpened.
So it should surprise no visitor — tourists seeking a mountain respite, politicians searching for hidden passages through these heights — to discover that the blacks on the faraway mountains are beginning to deepen and the whites of the birches seem more brilliant than they were even in summertime sunshine, the protective covering provided in early August by the elms and the maples having fluttered away by late October.
Geology and biology may have created the physical landscape of this place, but for as long as there has been a United States, struggle and striving have shaped the political landscape of New Hampshire, which in only 15 months holds the first primary in the 2016 presidential race.
It may be hard to see over the next hill in the fog that lingers here as I write this morning, but there is a political parable in these mountains. For the Republicans it is still autumn — so many colors, so many candidates, that there is no discernible pattern, no dominant pigment. For the Democrats it is deep winter — forbiddingly cold, and black and white, no grays.
For the Democrats’ political trail is a set of two paths diverging in a wood (as the state’s famous poet put it in a different context): Yes or no on Hillary Rodham Clinton; follow or diverge from the route blazed by the current administration; a metaphorical third term — for that is how the Republicans will describe it, no matter whom their rivals select — for Bill Clinton or Barack Obama?
Choices, choices: The Republicans have many in the next several months. One path or another: That’s the Democrats’ fate.
And there is another one-or-the-other choice that the Democrats face as they gird for a very complicated 2016: male or female.
Almost nowhere else in political America is the opening for a female presidential candidate so promising as it is here in New Hampshire, the state that gave Ms. Clinton’s husband a comeback from his womanizing problems in 1992 and that gave the New York senator her own comeback from her Iowa defeat in her 2008 campaign.
For here the state House speaker and chief justice of the state Supreme Court are women. And for now — this will change slightly in January because of election results — both members of the U.S. Senate and both members of the U.S. House are women.
One of those House members is the daughter of a gubernatorial candidate and great granddaughter of a governor, but what may be most important is that Annie McLane Kuster’s mother was a state senator who helped shape the outlook of U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter. No one who knew Susan McLane, an ardent supporter of abortion rights who died a decade ago, had any doubt how Justice Souter would come down on the question in the high court. All those Sunday dinners, and Mrs. McLane’s irrepressible passion, had an effect.
For more than 35 years, at least a quarter of the gigantic New Hampshire legislature has been female, a record unmatched anywhere in the country. And that part-time body with 400 members has been a ladder of political mobility for women unmatched anywhere in the country.
“The bar to political participation in this state has been low,” says Dante J. Scala, a University of New Hampshire political scientist, “We have an amateur state legislature. Jeanne Shaheen could get her start working as an activist out of her kitchen. Decades ago women were able to gain entry while they were stalled in other states.”
This is not lost on Team Clinton, which sent its warrior on a white steed into this state just before this month’s midterm election. The former secretary of state appeared at a big (for New Hampshire: 700 people) get-out-the-vote rally in Nashua and then joined Mrs. Shaheen and Gov. Maggie Hassan at a popular Manchester restaurant, the Puritan Backroom. They chose the venue for the convenience but there was symbolism, too. Here, women control the backrooms of politics.
“People were really appreciative,” says Kathleen N. Sullivan, a national Democratic committeewoman from this state. “It got people excited about the midterms and it got people out to the polls. Hillary’s visit was a real boost for the candidates, and for her.”
Political professionals often compare the 2016 Democratic race, with its strong frontrunner, to the 1984 campaign, when former Vice President Walter F. Mondale also seemed an inevitable nominee — until, of course, he reached New Hampshire, where he was ambushed by an insurgent, Sen. Gary Hart of Colorado, in a campaign masterminded by, among others, Mrs. Shaheen, who had been active in former Gov. Jimmy Carter’s victory here in 1976 over Rep. Morris K. Udall of Arizona and Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana and who later became a state senator and three-term governor.
But the better comparison might be the 1952 Republican race, where Dwight Eisenhower was the formidable favorite. He scored more than 50 percent in the primary here, an unusually strong showing, and went on to win the GOP nomination and two White House terms.
Right now, the RealClearPolitics average of recent New Hampshire polls puts Ms. Clinton at a remarkable 59 percent. Her strongest potential opponent stands at slightly below 15 percent, and that is Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, who almost certainly will not run if Ms. Clinton does. Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. is in the unhappy position of being in a virtual tie with Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who is a socialist and whose chances are nil.
The contrast with the Republicans — by any measure the more colorful party this year, as befits their autumn coat-of-many-colors profile — couldn’t be more dramatic. No Republican candidate claims as much as 13 percent of GOP support right now in New Hampshire, and three of them are clustered between 11.4 and 12.6 percent. Many leaves remain to fall.