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HAMPTON FALLS, N.H. – The Granite State may be just a slight clip behind Iowa in launching momentum in the GOP presidential primary race, which is picking up this week, but it is poised to hold on to its traditions in the ever-evolving process.

Former Gov. John Sununu, who just finished a stint chairing the state party, explained that New Hampshire likely has hosted more visits by potential GOP 2012 presidential contenders than Iowa has, but the public just hasn’t been aware of some of those events.

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Earlier this week, the Des Moines Register heralded a flurry of activity in Iowa that appeared to amount to the unofficial launch of the primary race, even though there are still no major announced candidates yet for the GOP. For activists in Iowa, the development has been a welcome one in what has been a delayed start to the race.

“I think Iowa is making more of a commercial operation of their caucus. They’re holding events that they kind of trap the candidates into having to be a part of – and as part of their ‘let’s build up the politics in Iowa’ game,” Sununu said in a wide-ranging interview. “People have been up here; we just don’t have those commercial events.” He added, “I bet in total number of visits, we’ve had more total number of visits.”

Sununu continued that many of the well-known likely candidates drop in for traditional small coffee sessions and community meetings that never make it into print.

“I think you have more of a low-key, traditional structure in New Hampshire, things that have always been going on, where Iowa has been adding special events in recent years that create an environment of obligation that candidates feel they have to respond to,” he said. One of those is this Monday’s Faith and Freedom Coalition forum in Des Moines, which several likely candidates plan to attend.

But as Sununu reminded, a perfect attendance record at all of those events doesn’t guarantee a victory.

“Iowa is a manufactured process,” he said. “Iowa is a caucus. I win the caucus if I have more buses than the other guy. I load up my buses, I make sure there’s enough food so we can keep them at the caucus until the voting starts, and that’s it.”

He went on, “That’s why, quite often, Iowa has surprises. What you really should be covering is the logistics in Iowa. Iowa is a logistically driven thing, and so you ought to just cut a contract with the bus company and see who’s hiring.”

Despite Sununu’s bravado about the Granite State’s role in the process, the former White House chief of staff said he would advise any candidate not to skip any of the early states.

“All the serious candidates will compete in both, I think – less of a fracture than last time,” he said, because, “most of the serious candidates this time have been around once, and I think they’re smart enough to know that the worst thing you can do is write one state off or another state off.

“Call it the Rudy Giuliani syndrome. Rudy’s idea of writing off too many states had him out of the game quickly.”

And in Sununu’s mind, it’s getting to be about that time when candidates have to start making plays in his state.

At this point, the veteran Republican official believes the field is going to be quite a bit smaller and less wide-open than the chattering class is suggesting. In fact, he predicted there may be only three real candidates.

Already, one potential candidate who could have made his mark in the Granite State has already ruled himself out: South Dakota Sen. John Thune.

“I thought Thune could have been a credible candidate in New Hampshire,” Sununu said. “But I really thought two months ago it was almost too late for him because he had virtually never been in the state. But he hadn’t done enough even two months ago to allow himself the luxury of running a credible race,” he said.

The candidates who have so far shown an interest in competing in New Hampshire include former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour. Texas Rep. Ron Paul has an event in the state later this month. U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman and Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels have been mentioned as possible contenders.

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