It began in 1952 with a man named Estes Kefauver tramping around New Hampshire wearing a coonskin cap and posing on dogsleds in the snow.
Taking on President Harry S. Truman, who dismissed that first New Hampshire primary as "eyewash," the Tennessee senator shook every hand he could find in the one-on-one campaigning that has become the hallmark of successful races in the state.
Kefauver beat Truman; the president decided not to run, and the New Hampshire primary entered U.S. political history.
The state's 12 primaries over the last half century offer a rich and instructive history in the pursuit and pitfalls of retail politics in a small state that exerts unusual sway over the nation every four years.
That influence was first felt decisively in 1968, when Democrat Eugene McCarthy ran against President Lyndon B. Johnson by relentlessly criticizing the Vietnam War.
The Minnesota senator lost to Johnson, but his strong second-place finish showed the depth of anti-war feeling in the country and the president's political vulnerability.
It also demonstrated the critical role that expectations play as voters and the media use the first-in-the-nation primary to gauge a candidate's strength.
"He didn't defeat him, but for all intents and purposes he did defeat him," said Steve Taylor, the state's commissioner of agriculture and a student of its political lore. "Johnson saw the handwriting on the wall, and decided to get out."
Four years later, Democrat Edmund Muskie waged his campaign against the fierce opposition of the Manchester Union Leader, the staunchly conservative newspaper that attacked him.
Fighting back, the Maine senator gave an emotional speech on a flatbed truck in front of the newspaper on a snowy day, and, according to some of the reporters there, began crying.
Local politicians say there's no answer to the question of whether there were tears in Muskie's eyes or how many votes the event changed. But the way it was depicted raised questions about whether Muskie had the grit to be president.
"I think it showed he sort of cracked under pressure," said Jeff Woodburn, a former state Democratic Party chairman.
"He was an emotional man," added Walter Peterson, a moderate Republican who served as New Hampshire governor from 1969-1973. "I don't think the less of him for it, but I think the way it was portrayed probably did some damage."
Muskie won the primary, but by fewer votes than he had hoped for, and eventually lost the nomination to George McGovern, a South Dakota senator.
For Ronald Reagan, the 1980 New Hampshire primary offered a revealing moment when the California governor showed the tough character beneath his jovial manner and movie star good looks.
At a debate with fellow Republican George Bush, Reagan bristled when the moderator barred other Republican candidates from taking part in the evening, which his campaign financed.
"I paid for this microphone," he said angrily as Bush, who did not want to share the stage with the others, sat quietly.
"That was a great turning point," said Woodburn. "It showed that Reagan wasn't just a nice guy but that there was a toughness about him, that he was willing to stand up and fight. That really stole the show and turned the momentum."
Bush served loyally at Reagan's side as vice president for eight years before he won New Hampshire and the White House, and then lost the presidency after one term to Bill Clinton.
In 1992, Clinton was drowning in allegations that he had an affair with cabaret singer Gennifer Flowers and that he dodged the draft to escape the Vietnam War.
Written off by many analysts, the Arkansas Democrat campaigned tirelessly, vowing that if New Hampshire supported him he would stay with the state "until the last dog dies."
Clinton came in second to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas, but his recovery was so startling that he dubbed himself "The Comeback Kid" and became the only person in history to lose the primary and but win the White House.
Experts say Clinton's ability to feel people's pain, or at least to give them that impression, and his stamina in meeting thousands of people across the state allowed him to survive.
"All our voters get treated like millionaire donors," said Woodburn. "That's the genius of the New Hampshire primary ... People have an opportunity to personally scrutinize these candidates and bring them down to earth."