GOFFSTOWN, N. H. _ For anyone supporting a cause or a candidate for president, the place to be Thursday was a snowy stretch of sidewalk outside the college auditorium where seven Democrats debated their qualifications to challenge George Bush.
As the sun set, the snow fell and the temperature dropped, hundreds of sign-toting activists shouted themselves hoarse engaging in verbal duels for the candidate of their choice -- and the attention of the national media that followed the candidManchester.
Meanwhile, activists for abortion rights, animal rights and union rights waved signs of their own, and tax reformers "rode" stuffed ostriches as a way to suggest Social Security should be privatized.
This is how crazy it was, some 90 minutes before the last debate before the New Hampshire primary:
A drummer wearing a horned Viking helmet led supporters of Ohio Rep. Dennis Kucinich in a conga line into the chanting masses, past the supporters of former Gen. Wesley Clark, who waved star-spangled pinwheels and shouted their slogans, appropriately enough, in military cadence.
On they marched, past the supporters of former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean, who were chanting on their own: "D-E-A-N. Let's take our country back again."
They squeezed past blue-shirted Health Care Voters, who waved signs warning candidates: "Running for President? Health care better be your priority."
They marched among the supporters of North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who were also spelling their candidates' names.
They danced past the Carbon Coalition, sporting signs demanding "Save our Syrup."
Roger Stephenson of Stratham, N.H., said the coalition was trying to raise awareness of the dangers of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases that damage trees, including New England's syrup-producing maples. Some of its members got together in the 1984 presidential campaign to raise awareness of acid rain, and started a national campaign that led to restrictions on chemicals, Stephenson said.
The Kucinich supporters popped out the back end of the mass of protesters, and looped back to the front, where their candidate was expected to address members of The Newspaper Guild. Employees of the Manchester Union-Leader were holding an informational picket against their employer, one of the debate's media sponsors.
Pat Grossmith, the union local's president, said the union and management have been negotiating a contract for 15 months, and that the existing contract expired at the end of 2002.
Nearby, members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals handed out flyers for its presidential hopeful, Cris P. Carrot, an orange-costumed tuber of a candidate.
"We want people to get back to their roots -- and their vegetables and their whole grains," said Joe Haptas of Seattle.
A little humor can get people's attention, said Haptas, who incidentally designed the anti-milk billboard that featured Santa Claus checking under his pants. The billboard, which some viewers found offensive, appeared in Spokane during the holiday season.
As Haptas was speaking, seven activists sporting stuffed ostriches around their waists and wearing masks of candidates waddled by. The activists, from Citizens for a Sound Economy, were advocating the privatizing of Social Security, and had picked ostriches, one said, because the candidates' "heads are buried in the sand" on that issue.
Supporters of Dean, Clark and Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry had nailed as many as five yard signs onto long two-by-fours and hoisted them some 12 feet in the air as they lined either side of the road leading to the auditorium. As bagpipers from the New Hampshire Professional Fire Fighters Pipe Band led a stream of Kerry supporters to the debate site, the supporters brandished their sign poles at each other like medieval pikemen.
Meanwhile, the person with the most unusual costume of the night handed out bumper stickers announcing his candidacy. Vermin Supreme -- who said he's from Des Moines, Iowa, and has legally changed his name to that -- wore a black rubber boot on his head and a leopard skin cape around his neck and carried a giant toothbrush.
Vermin Supreme said he isn't on next Tuesday's New Hampshire primary ballot because he couldn't afford the filing fee, but was on the Washington, D.C., presidential primary ballot earlier this month, where he collected 146 votes.
While Supreme seemed very sincere for someone named Vermin, his claims couldn't be independently verified Thursday night.
•Staff writer Jim Camden is traveling in New Hampshire this week with a laptop computer and a camera-phone. To see more of what he's finding on the campaign trail, visit his online column at www.spokesmanreview.com/spincontrol.