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“It was just before midnight when I left Cambridge and headed north on U.S. 93 toward Manchester … back on the Campaign Trail …” So began Hunter S. Thompson’s legendary coverage of the New Hampshire primary in “Fear and Loathing,” the 1972 Rolling Stone essay that changed political journalism forever.

It was just before noon, 40 years later on an unusually balmy January day, when I embarked on the same journey, and headed out of Cambridge on the road that had taken Thompson to Manchester. Craving more than the usual talking points and stump speeches, I was in search of a feeling, an impulse, a presence. More importantly, I wanted to witness the beauty of active democratic participation, in a state where the candidates were accessible to any citizen who wanted to talk to them. The Granite State didn’t disappoint.

Arriving an hour later for a Ron Paul rally at a regional airport on the outskirts of Nashua, I was greeted by a bearded, greying man in a stetson and cowboy boots who was selling campaign buttons. I dished out $10 and picked out a couple. The slogans included an acronym of the President’s last name (One Big-Ass Mistake, America), and a picture of the Trix rabbit with the tagline, “Silly Democrat, paychecks are for work!” I entered the hangar where the congressman was set to speak, where the common greeting by staff and supporters was, “Hello, and Welcome to the Revolution!” The son of the revolutionary, Kentucky senator Rand Paul, warmed-up the crowd of 300, attacking Rick Santorum’s support of congressional earmarks, denouncing traditional Washington politics, ridiculing foreign aid, and declaring that his father was the only candidate with a plan to balance the budget in one term. The senator also condemned the doubling of the national debt under George W. Bush, adding that “the Republican party is an empty vessel unless we imbue it with values.”

Congressman Paul ascended the stage to the loudest applause I would hear all day. He spoke without notes or a teleprompter. His voice was feeble but its grip over an audience was unmatched. When he implicitly called for boos or cheers, his supporters one-upped him, with cries of, “tyranny!” and “hell yea!” Included in his call to shrink the federal government was the claim that the Patriot Act (which dramatically reduced the restrictions on law enforcement agencies’ ability to access private telephone and email communications, as well as medical and financial records) was naked opportunism by a government determined to spy on all Americans. He likened legislative efforts to regulate Internet piracy to the policy of a “dictatorship.” But after all his combative rhetoric, supporters were sent off with a friendly reminder to volunteer for the congressman, and to pick up a copy of the Paul family cookbook.

I pressed north toward Manchester, a place Thompson had described as “a broken-down mill town on the Merrimack River with an aggressive Chamber of Commerce and America’s worst newspaper. There is not much else to say for it, except that Manchester is a welcome change from Washington, D.C.” Rick Santorum’s “Faith, Family, and Freedom” town hall was set to take place in a local restaurant. When I arrived 50 minutes early for a 4 p.m. start time, there were around 100 press and voters waiting patiently, with seating to spare. By 3:50, the number of people in the restaurant had easily tripled. A Santorum staffer proudly told the audience that the Senator, a punctual man, would arrive momentarily. A few minutes after 4:00, the staffer returned with a different message: the senator was running late, and the building’s fire code only allowed 100 people in the building. He announced that only a hundred could stay, and the rest would have to leave. Scrambling to salvage the event, he was on the phone asking “can we get a mic?” After hanging up, he announced that the event was being moved to the parking lot. Later, most of the coverage suggested that the event was forced to move outside because of the unexpectedly high-turnouts — not because of the campaign’s incompetency. But Mark Pelletier, the Manchester District Fire Chief, was clear: “The campaign was told 100 people max.”

Out in the parking lot, Santorum was sitting in the passenger seat of an idling Dodge pick-up being driven by an aide. As the crowd spilled out of the restaurant he got out and pushed through a circling throng of supporters and hecklers. Daylight was fading as he gave an abbreviated version of his stump speech without a microphone and then took a few questions. His views on major social and economic issues had been thoroughly vetted after his late surge in Iowa. What I had not heard from any candidate was an opinion on the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, tasked with promoting fairness and transparency in mortgages, credit cards, and other consumer financial products and services.

Santorum had time for about five questions from the audience after his speech. When he called on me, I asked: “Do you think that the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a step in the right direction when it comes to preventing predatory lending practices, and if not, how would you tackle the problem?” The former senator asked me to re-state the name of the agency. I re-iterated, more slowly, “The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.” He began his response by referring to the CFPB as the “Consumer Financial Office.” He tied my question to the President’s recess appointment of Richard Cordray as the director of the bureau, claiming that the appointment was an unconstitutional presidential power-grab. He didn’t explicitly call for the dissolution of the CFPB, but stuck to the principle that an increase in the role of the federal government would hurt the economy. He also claimed that the agency was an example of the President’s belief that he and “the smartest people can make decisions better than you can.”

Next stop, Salem, N.H. for a town hall meeting with Newt Gingrich in the Salem High School cafeteria. The room was well-lit with an established media area. Around 150 chairs were set up, and when I arrived at 6:10 for a 7 p.m. start time, only the first two rows were filled up. But by the former speaker’s 7:15 arrival, all seats were filled and people were being turned away at the door. Several voters wore “Don’t MA$$ up New Hampshire” T-Shirts, a jab at Mitt Romney, whom the former speaker has labeled “a Massachusetts moderate.” Gingrich arrived with a security detail and an entourage of campaign staff. After shaking hands and taking pictures with a few local politicians, he took to the podium.

Like Santorum and Paul, Gingrich declared that this is the most important election of our generation, implying that the U.S. will face a sharp decline if President Obama or Mitt Romney (“Harvard lawyers”) are elected. What distinguished Gingrich from his counterparts was his ability to clearly spell out his case against Romney. The reason why Ronald Reagan was elected in 1980, he said, was because he was a true conservative, not a moderate. He suggested that in 2012, the Republican nominee will only defeat the President if that sharp ideological contrast is evident.

With little time left for questions from the audience, I was lucky enough to be called on again. “Leaving aside the controversy over the appointment of Richard Cordray,” I asked, “do you think that regulating lending practices through the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is a step in the right direction, and if not, how should predatory lending practices be prevented?” The former speaker didn’t hesitate. “I’m very cautious about centralizing power in Washington. I think we can define what predatory lending practices are and give you a right to defend yourself with the suit of triple damages, if that’s what’s being engaged in. But I’m not certain that I want the government micromanaging the financial sector anymore than I want it micromanaging anything else, because I don’t trust it, and I think it’s inherently political.” He also said the agency would lead to corruption, although he didn’t explain how.

In their responses, both Santorum and Gingrich had channeled the late libertarian economist Milton Friedman, who once said, “Many people want the government to protect the consumer. A much more urgent problem is to protect the consumer from the government.” But even their hero, Ronald Reagan, had acknowledged that “government’s first duty is to protect the people, not run their lives.” The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created to protect the people, not run their lives. What both candidates failed to acknowledge is that the CFPB is not designed to make decisions for consumers, but simply to allow consumers to make more informed decisions. According to the agency’s website, “Above all, this means ensuring that consumers get the information they need to make the financial decisions they believe are best for themselves and their families — that prices are clear up front, that risks are visible, and that nothing is buried in fine print. In a market that works, consumers should be able to make direct comparisons among products and no provider should be able to build, or feel pressure to build, a business model around unfair, deceptive, or abusive practices.”

Many cite poor financial decisions in the housing market as one of the factors leading to the crash of 2008. Fine print, confusing language, and attractive front-end offers have been used to take advantage of American consumers for years. These tactics have cost working- and middle-class families tens of billions of dollars. Santorum offered no solution to the problem. The former speaker’s solution of allowing consumers to sue for triple damages is unrealistic. Who has the resources and time to fight the armies of lawyers at the disposal of powerful lending institutions?

The impression that emerged from the candidates’ answers to my question, and from much of what I heard on the Campaign Trail, was what Hunter Thompson had witnessed in 1972: fear and loathing. A healthy skepticism of government is at the heart of our nation’s birth. But the candidates I saw exploited that skepticism, fanning the flames of fear of forced government-dependency at the hands of an intellectual liberal establishment. It’s not a new tactic. We’ll know soon whether it’s working.