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By Graham Earnshaw

DIXVILLE NOTCH, New Hampshire, Oct 17, Reuter – It began as a publicity stunt and that is what it remains. But every four years, it puts this New England hamlet in the headlines.

Once again, Dixville Notch will be the first place in the country to vote in the U.S. presidential poll on November 8.

Its 30 registered voters collude with journalists to create a media event of the day.

Starting in 1960, they have gathered on each presidential election day in the “Ballot Room” at the local resort hotel and at one minute after midnight they cast their votes.

The press looks on, outnumbering voters three-to-one, ready to run for the telephones as soon as the count is done.

According to Neil Tillotson, 90-year-old millionaire inventor who owns the Balsams hotel that dominates this small community, it all began when reporters covering the 1960 John Kennedy-Richard Nixon race were looking for a town they could tout as the first in the United States to vote.

Dixville Notch won out over other isolated towns because the Balsams had enough telephones for the press corps.

“It sort of grew by itself,” said Tillotson. “We’ve never done anything to commercialise it. If we did, it would probably kill it.”

There will be little suspense when the votes are tallied. The outcome may be uncertain elsewhere in the country but in Dixville Notch Vice President George Bush is a gold-plated certainty.

Bush will win here for two reasons — he is a Republican and his opponent, Michael Dukakis, is governor of the disliked state of Massachusetts, a few hours’ drive south of Dixville Notch, which is 20 miles (30 km) from the Canadian border.

Just about everyone here seems to be an old fashioned pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps Republican, contemptuous of welfare programmes and tax hikes they associate with the Democrats.

Even some Democrats here — and there aren’t many of those — disapprove of Dukakis’s management of Massachusetts.

“I’m not voting for Dukakis, I’ll tell you that,” said Earl Largesse, one of six registered Democrats in town. “I’ve heard too much about Massachusetts — tax-achusetts, that is,” he said referring to that state’s relatively high tax rates. New Hampshire is one of the few states that doesn’t impose its own income tax.

The hotel’s managing director Steven Barba, a registered Republican, said he too would vote for Bush.

“I believe that a government which induces independence and self-reliance is better than one that almost prohibits it through over-programming of government support,” he said, summing up his view of Massachusetts politics.

The people of Dixville Notch must be among the most-polled and most-wooed voters in the world because New Hampshire holds the first primary election, the state contests used to select the parties’ nominees.

Lines of would-be presidents make the pilgrimage to this isolated corner of New Hampshire to try to win votes and publicity to help them on their way to the White House.

Some of them get no further than Dixville Notch.

One candidate remembered with amusement called himself Love 22. He came here in 1972 to sell his political manifesto, a major aspect of which was a recall all U.S. currency and issue of only 22 dollar bills.

This year, Dixville Notch residents had a choice of 37 primary candidates — 25 Democrats and 12 Republicans. Bush won the Republican vote. No one voted for Dukakis.

The first man to vote in the United States, Neil Tillotson himself, backs Bush.

“I don’t think he’s perfect,” he said. “I don’t know anyone who is.”

Asked about Bush’s running mate Senator Dan Quayle, viewed by many Americans as unqualified for the vice-presidency, Tillotson said: “I don’t know what the hell he (Bush) picked him for, but there must be something to him.”

Retired air force officer Linwood Purrington also discounted the “Quayle factor,” saying: “I think he’s a fine senator and he’ll do the job just fine.”

The conservatism of the Dixville Notchers means their vote has little value as a guide to the way other Americans will start casting ballots six hours later.

But with voter apathy an increasing problem in U.S. elections, at least the townspeople set a good example with their 100 per cent turn-out.

“I think the effect is that (people say) if that little town up there can get out to vote at midnight,” Barba said, “then damn it I can find time in my day to go and vote too.” REUTER JLK BM NNNN

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