You can be sure the presidential contenders have a close eye on the outcome. But so far, they've been shy about taking sides.

It's easy to see why. Which do you want to offend, the Sununu machine, or the Tea Party voters?

Two paths
A lot of people now expect the 2012 primary field to split into two early races.

New Hampshire Tea Partiers, in the afterglow of their 2010 success, are already looking for a conservative, populist candidate, says Andrew Hemingway, chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus, which endorsed more than 100 of the new Republican House members. "There's already been a shift in attention toward the presidential contest" among those activists, Hemingway says.

The state's establishment Republicans, on the other hand, will be looking for a more mainstream, electable candidate — one they hope will benefit from the large number of independents expected to vote in the Republican primary, with Obama's re-nomination a foregone conclusion.

It's not at all clear, however, which "influencers," if any, hold the key to those two paths.

Neither Kimball nor Bergeron are big enough players to immediately become power brokers, regardless of which of them wins the state party chairmanship in the mid-January vote. Meanwhile, political insiders say that neither Senator-elect Ayotte nor O'Brien seem inclined to assert themselves as kingmakers.

The state party didn't even organize the traditional dinner, usually held a year before the primary, that has served in the past as a showcase for speeches from presidential candidates.

Which means that, for the time being, it looks like an open market, with little centralized control over the endorsements and assistance from several hundred elected Republican lawmakers, organizers, and volunteers.

"Ten or 20 years ago, you would have said go after the institutional people," says Charles Arlinghaus, Republican insider and president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy. "Now there's a growing realization that there aren't power brokers per se. Nobody delivers a group, you have to go get the group."

New ballgame
Candidates will also likely find themselves seeking to curry favor with any number of newly emerging conservative voices whose influence has yet to be tested — associations like Hemingway's Republican Liberty Caucus; advocacy groups like Cornerstone Policy Research, led by Kevin Smith; and Web sites like RedHampshire or GraniteGrok.

Of course, Pindell, Arlinghaus, and others acknowledge another possibility: that this cycle will reveal that none of New Hampshire's Republican influencers matter at all. The truth could be that New Hampshire's Republicans get their news and opinions from distant sources — primarily Fox News, talk radio, and national Web sites like NewsMax and RedState.

It might not be necessary, this time around, for candidates to bother sucking up to local pols, or traipsing through house parties and farmers' markets in Coos County — as long as you get favorable treatment from Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, and Erick Erickson.

That new reality might be why, other than Romney and to some extent Pawlenty, none of the 2012 wannabes made any serious effort to help Granite State Republicans in the 2010 midterms — and why a lot of insiders don't think it did Romney and Pawlenty much good. It might in fact be a whole new ballgame in New Hampshire — one in which the new players aren't even part of the game.

To read the "Talking Politics" blog, go to thePhoenix.com/talkingpolitics. David S. Bernstein can be reached at dbernstein@phx.com. Follow him on Twitter @dbernstein.

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