Rich Tuite woke up Thursday morning, fed his two horses, turned on the TV news for his three dogs and climbed into his full-size SUV along with his wife, Cindi, to go see Donald Trump.

Now here he stood in downtown Exeter, New Hampshire, smack dab between a small line of protesters and a huge line of Trump supporters outside the historic Exeter Town Hall. The Donald, love him or hate him, was still a good three hours away.

“I’m not testing any waters,” said Tuite, 62, who lives in nearby Kingston and works for a plumbing and heating company. “I’m all for Trump because Trump is a non-politician.”

Might he care to elaborate?

“It’s like owning a horse,” Tuite replied. “Every day is different, but every day is the same. Because every day, you shovel (manure). The next day you go in, you shovel (manure). The next day, it’s different (manure), but it’s the same thing every day. And there’s only one way to make a change. Either you get rid of the horse or you quit shoveling. Well, if you quit shoveling, then the horse is not going to be in a very nice environment. So, the only other way to do it is to get rid of the horse. So, my theory is, get rid of the horse!”

So Trump is … a new horse?

“He’s a different horse,” replied Tuite. “It’s a whole different scene.”

So, at the moment, is New Hampshire.

From last Tuesday, the day after the 2016 Iowa presidential caucuses, until this Tuesday, the day of the New Hampshire primary, the Granite State is a place transformed.

From early morning until well after dark, from the church down the road to the pub on the corner, the presidential wannabes keep coming … and coming … and coming …

And at every stop, the multitudes await. The primary is their pilgrimage and nothing – not the TV ads, not the incessant phone calls, not the doorknob fliers that end up underfoot on the front walk – can replace the visceral rite of cramming into a packed hall for hours on end to see for yourself who’s for real and who isn’t, who’s got a shot (Trump! Trump! Trump!) and who doesn’t (sorry, Jeb).

But with nine Republicans and two Democrats still in the race by week’s end, where does a voter begin?

If the old axiom is true that you don’t vote in the New Hampshire primary without first getting off your duff and actually putting a handshake to that name on the ballot, who merits a look-see? And why?

Hailey LeRoy, 17, is a senior at Pinkerton Academy in Derry. She has autism.

She sat with her mother, Donna, in the front row at a Hillary Clinton get-out-the-vote rally on Wednesday morning at the Derry Boys and Girls Club, waving her hand wildly in the hope she’d get to ask a question.

Suddenly, the former secretary of state was holding the microphone in front of Hailey’s face.

“I am autistic and I am very concerned about going to college,” Hailey said. “I’ve had a lot of transitions and I didn’t even know I could go to high school – they thought I might have to be home-schooled because of all the stress inducers. But anyway, in colleges, they don’t have to follow IEP’s (individualized education programs) and I’m also concerned about a five-year plan, which allows me to spread things out.”

Hillary was impressed. The whole room was impressed.

Long after the applause subsided and Hillary went on at some length about how there’s no reason in the world why a student like Hailey shouldn’t continue on through higher education, Donna LeRoy explained that two of her four children – Hailey and 11-year-old Aiden – have autism.

Which makes Donna, who advocates for her children in their schools while her husband works as a medical computer software technician, a single-issue voter.

“I’ve read (Hillary’s) plans,” Donna said. “Especially her plan for special ed. She’s the only candidate who has one.”

Hailey, who will vote in her first presidential election come November, brought a hand strengthener and soft squeeze ball to Wednesday’s rally. She calls them her “stress toys” and uses them if she starts to feel too anxious. Which, on this day, she didn’t.

After the rally, Hailey and her mother posed for a picture with Hillary, who once again urged Hailey to keep going, keep pursuing her dream of a college degree. A line of women waited not just to meet Hillary, but to congratulate Hailey.

“I’m glad I came with Mom today and was able to share this moment with my mom,” said Hailey. “She’s my hero.”

Republican Ted Cruz is fast becoming the Rev. Canon Dr. Mark A. Pearson’s hero.

Pearson, who lives in Hampstead, is the chief executive officer of the New Creation Healing Center, a Christian-oriented medical facility in Kingston.

A member of his town’s Republican committee, he spent months courting the long parade of Republican candidates before settling on Cruz because the Texas senator’s views on health care went far beyond “a sound bite on repealing Obamacare.”

Standing Tuesday morning outside the packed Crossing Life Church in Windham, where he would soon help introduce Cruz to a decidedly evangelical audience, Pearson insisted that this guy is different – an outsider “who’s been inside enough to know how things work.”

He also sees in Cruz what many others don’t – a compassionate streak.

“I’m a bleeding heart conservative,” said Pearson. “I want somebody who understands that sometimes fewer regulations and less taxation actually does good.”

He’s also grown weary of the Republican “establishment” – a catchphrase in these parts for anyone who isn’t Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

“I grew up in a small town in New England where Republicanism was the farmer, the shopkeeper, the average person,” said Pearson, whose resume also includes a stint as a radio talk-show host. “We didn’t know where the country club was, never mind be part of it. We weren’t big business, country-club Republicans. We weren’t right wingers. We were small-town folks, almost like Reagan Democrats in a way. That’s how I was raised.”

Jan Lovre-Paul, on the other hand, was raised in the very bosom of the Republican establishment. Her father was U.S. Rep. Harold O. Lovre, who represented South Dakota from 1949 until 1957, when he was knocked out of Congress by a young upstart Democrat named George McGovern.

Lovre-Paul, now 84, can still remember young congressmen gathered around her family dinner table with names like Gerald Ford and Melvin Laird and Henry “Scoop” Jackson.

Little wonder, therefore, that she now found herself attending a Jeb Bush town hall in Hanover with a furrow in her forehead and nervous knot in her stomach. This February finds her beloved Republican Party in full meltdown.

“I just don’t know what to do, I really don’t,” fretted Lovre-Paul after a 90-minute session best remembered for Jeb’s now-infamous “please clap” line. “I really enjoyed listening to him because I felt like he was talking to me and I feel like I can trust him. And I feel like he’s human.”

But he’s no … Donald Trump?

“Trump? Oh God,” Lovre-Paul replied.

She would go no further in her thoughts about the man crushing the New Hampshire Republican primary polls. It simply would not be proper.

But she worries that Jeb is too far down to rebound now. And while she’d vote for, say, a Marco Rubio, it’s worth noting that if Trump were to win the Republican nomination, Lovre-Paul might just do the unthinkable on Nov. 8.

“I probably wouldn’t vote,” she said, as if trying to convince herself. “I probably wouldn’t vote.”

Has that ever happened before?

“Never,” she replied. “Never, never, never, never, never, never, never … ever.”

Richard Roach, a volunteer for Republican Chris Christie, will vote no matter what. Heck, depending on what happens between now and November, there’s even a chance he might still vote for Hillary Clinton.

“I am devoted to the New Hampshire primary process,” declared Roach, 67, moments after Christie delivered a post-Iowa pep talk Tuesday morning to his volunteers at campaign headquarters in Bedford.

Roach, who lives in Hollis, took a tactical approach to this primary election.

First off, his Roman Catholic faith rejected outright any consideration of Donald Trump and his proposed ban on any and all Muslims entering the United States.

Second, no matter how many New Hampshire voters rally around Bernie Sanders come Tuesday, Roach’s political instincts told him Hillary Clinton no doubt will be the Democratic nominee this fall. So there’s no sense wasting his time and energy on that contest.

Third, since he’s an independent and thus can participate in either primary under New Hampshire’s voting laws, Roach figured he could have the most influence (and fun) by choosing a Republican and signing on as a volunteer.

One of Roach’s friends recommended Christie. Roach went and heard the New Jersey governor speak at St. Anselm College in December and was sold. For now.

“I like his sense of humor, his intelligence,” said Roach, who’s retired after 41 years with the Army Corps of Engineers. “I’m charmed by him, I guess is the word.”

So much so that he’s spending the days leading up to the primary ferrying college kids from New Jersey around the back roads of southern New Hampshire so they can hang Christie literature on doors and plant Christie signs on street corners.

Just like he did two years ago for Democratic U.S. Sen. Jean Shaheen in her successful re-election campaign against that Republican interloper Scott Brown from Massachusetts.

“I just got a Christmas card from Shaheen,” said Roach. “Now I’m using some of her old wood to hang up signs for Christie!”

A virtual forest of “Bernie Sanders for President” signs covered every square foot of public space Tuesday afternoon along Main Street in Keene.

The stately Colonial Theatre was full to capacity, and then some, with raucous fans of the Vermont senator widely expected to win big in the Democratic contest come Tuesday.

All of which left Michael Matros of Keene in one big pickle.

“I came here because I like him and it’s a scene,” said Matros, who retired a few years ago as communications director at St. Paul’s School in Concord and now works part time as a writer and editor. “But I’m a little more convinced than I expected to be. He’s so good. He’s just a great speaker.”

Matros’ dilemma: “The women in my family have been for Hillary since forever.”

Meaning if Matros didn’t take off that Bernie sticker on his sweater before he got home – he needed it to get into the theater – he was going to have some serious explaining to do.

It’s a heart-head thing for Matros.

The more he listened to Sanders’ hourlong, no-notes speech about the banks, climate change, free college education, redistribution of wealth, the more inspired he felt.

“I agree with almost everything he says,” said Matros. “I’ve always considered myself a Social Democrat. And I’ve always voted with my heart in the primary. So I should be voting for him.”

But?

“It’s all about electability,” he said. “And I like Hillary. I like her a lot.”

So what’s he going to do?

Matros thought about it for a few seconds.

“I think I’ll probably vote for Hillary,” he finally conceded. “Out of self-preservation.”

Not so for Melissa Devin. Still “feeling the Bern” from the theater, the last thing on her mind was electing the nation’s first female president.

“That doesn’t mean much to me,” said Devin, 46, who lives in North Swanzey and teaches English at both Franklin Pierce College and the Community College of Vermont.

What does mean a lot to Devin is the future that awaits her young daughter. And Bernie, she said, is the only presidential candidate willing to wrestle that future away from “Wall Street, the Koch brothers, Big Pharma, everything.”

“I think middle America really needs to educate themselves,” said Devin. “I think once they hear that it could be an opportunity for everybody to have a free college education, I think more and more people will jump on that bus.”

And what if they do? What if Bernie were to actually get elected president and find himself face-to-face with a Congress that had zero interest in even discussing free college tuition, let alone legislating it?

“We’re just going to have to keep going,” said Devin matter-of-factly. “We have to get out there.

“He’s going to take this. People in New Hampshire love him. He’s going to be the front-runner. And then people (elsewhere) are going to love him and they’re going to be like, ‘Wow, this revolution maybe is happening.’ ”

‘Revolution” is not a word you’re likely to hear tumbling from the lips of Phil Davis, 42, a father of five who lives in Dover and works as a school principal in Portsmouth.

Davis and his 9-year-old son, Isaac, squeezed into the Cara Irish Pub in Dover on Wednesday evening to hear an up-and-coming Marco Rubio explain why he should be the guy to restore some order to this year’s anything but conventional Republican primary race.

“I like his conservative values. I think he’s got a youthful approach,” said Davis.

Perhaps too youthful?

“Thirty-five is all you have to be, right?” he replied with a smile.

Davis and Isaac (his oldest) actually introduced Hillary Clinton at a recent rally at Davis’ school, even had their picture taken with her. But they ducked out before her speech.

Not so with Rubio. This Davis wanted his son to see.

“I used to be a history teacher,” said Davis when asked why he brought Isaac along on this evening. “He loves history. He loves government operations. He’s always asking me about this and that. An opportunity like this only comes by every so often.”

He added with a smile, “When Mom condones it, we’re good.”

Davis, no Donald Trump fan, has cautioned his teachers at school about making off-the-cuff remarks about the guy with the orange hair. You never know, after all, whom a kid’s parents might support and “then it’s my headache.”

Truth be told, however, Trump is Davis’ worst political nightmare.

“You know, early on I said that the party wouldn’t nominate him,” Davis said. “Now I think he’s got the numbers. It scares me. I think he’ll win here.”

That’s music to the ears of Rich Tuite. The manure guy.

His smile is wide enough to connect his mutton-chop sideburns. But don’t let that fool you – Tuite is in no way a happy camper.

“Angry?” he said as the line grew ever longer outside the Exeter Town Hall. “I’m about as angry as you can get.”

How so?

“I get a pay raise, but my paycheck goes down because I’ve now been bumped up two (tax) brackets. Now I’m paying more for less services. My insurance costs have gone way up. I’m getting older. I’m making more money. But my lifestyle pretty much has remained the same, you know?”

Tuite had surgery on his bum knee just over a week ago. He doubts it will let him keep working as a gas and heating technician beyond the end of the year.

Keep working or not, he’s hellbent on keeping his two Bashkir Curly horses and his 23-foot fishing boat – it costs him $200 every time he takes it out. Yet he’s unsure how that happens in a retirement that includes only a small pension and no 401(k) to speak of.

“I refuse to let go of what I have now,” Tuite said. “If you don’t have something, then you have nothing.”

Fifty feet away, the protesters began chanting: “One, two, three, four, leave your hatred at the door! Two, four, six, eight, we won’t tolerate your hate!”

They were all in their teens, all students from nearby Phillips Exeter Academy. Tuite, speechless, just shook his head and rolled his eyes before going to join his wife in the Trump line.

Joe Bartkovich, 17, one of the protesters, grew up in Exeter and is a senior at the academy. He’ll turn 18 before November and is torn between Hillary and Bernie, but at the same time he’s utterly dismayed by The Donald.

“I did not think it was the sort of thing that could succeed here,” Bartkovich said, holding tight to his sign that said, “Immigrants are the backbone of this country.”

Still, Bartkovich has watched his share of Trump rallies on television. And beyond the constant “Trump! Trump! Trump!” cheers and the paper-thin campaign rhetoric, he’s noticed something else.

“There are always protesters. There are always people speaking out,” he said. “And that gives me hope.”

Hope is a fast-fading commodity for John Jones, a 75-year-old veteran who long ago spent “11 months, 23 days and nine hours” deployed as a young Green Beret in Vietnam.

Standing in the driving sleet Wednesday morning alongside Route 120 just outside Lebanon, his old green beret still proudly atop his gray-white head, Jones and his fellow Vietnam vet Wilbert Hardy of Norwich, Vermont, were hard at work soliciting honks for Bernie Sanders from the morning rush-hour crowd.

“The reception is incredible,” said Jones over the constant din. “It’s phenomenal.”

So … why Bernie?

“Well, first of all, he’s an honest man,” said Jones. “And he’s a veteran’s friend. And he answers questions, he really does. You ask him what he’s going to do about the climate situation and he goes on at length about what he’s going to do.”

Jones knows a thing or two about the climate. After he hung up his Army uniform, he became an arborist. Spent his whole adult life around trees.

“An anchor rope and a chopping saw,” he said. “That’s all I know.”

Deep down, he also knows that something’s got to change, and fast, if government is ever again going to truly look out for “ordinary slobs like us” like it did back in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

“Where was Donald? He didn’t go to ‘Nam,” said Jones. “I think his popularity stems from the fact that he’s appealing to those people who got a real kick in the ass and they’re sick and tired of business as usual. But he’s got nothing to offer except Donald. And I think he’s going to flop.”

And Bernie won’t?

“They’re going to say he’s not electable. Well, that’s (bull manure),” said Jones. “He’s plenty electable. He has a way. He’s three times as old as many of these people coming to vote. He’s got young people in this country enthusiastic about what he has to say.”

The sleet was falling harder now, soaking into Jones’ wool sweater and weighing down his huge American flag.

“We’re old guys,” he said, shifting the flag from one shoulder to the other. “We won’t be seeing the likes of him again.”

As he spoke, a tractor-trailer rounded the corner at a nearby stoplight and blared its deafening horn.

Jones raised his work-gloved hand and waved. The smiling driver gave him a thumbs-up and pulled a second time on the horn, long and loud, as he headed on up the highway.

It’s February of an election year.

And New Hampshire, one way or another, will make itself heard.