CONCORD, N.H. — Tears, tomatoes and teasing — the staff at Mary Ann's Diner has seen it all from the presidential candidates who have turned the restaurant into a must-not-miss stop during the primary campaign.
Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry's eyes brimmed with tears as he listened to a woman describe losing her job in 2003. Four years later, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani hustled through, shook a few hands then sat down to an egg white omelet, tomatoes on the side.
Teasing was on the menu when Mitt Romney stopped by in June. The former Massachusetts governor posed for a picture in front of the jukebox, told several waitresses to squeeze in closer and then pretended that one of them had grabbed his behind.
"Oh my goodness!" he exclaimed.
Joking aside, Romney and the others are plenty serious about seeing and being seen at popular campaign stops in the early voting states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.
Some venues provide wholesome, All-American backdrops for photo-ops; think 1950s-style diners. Others, such as a gun shop in New Hampshire, quickly telegraph a candidate's position on issues important to their party's base.
Parades, fairs and festivals allow the candidates to play to large crowds at a safe distance.
While such stops do give voters an up-close encounter with the candidates, in-depth conversations are rare. Candidates relish the media attention. Business owners and event organizers are glad for the free publicity.
At least four of the Republican presidential hopefuls have stopped by Mary Ann's in Derry during the current primary campaign, said owner William Andreoli. Most customers don't mind the commotion, which can be considerable, with television crews crowded behind the lunch counter and gaggles of reporters following candidates from booth to booth.
"There's always a couple of people who don't like the camera business, but all and all, people respond very well to it," he said of his regulars
Some New Hampshire venues and events are more popular with Republicans than Democrats.
Candidates who want to play up their support for gun owners' rights show up at Riley's Sport Shop in Hooksett. Those who want to be assured they're surrounded by GOP voters head for the Fourth of July parade in solidly Republican Amherst.
But Andreoli is an independent and his diner tends to attract candidates of both parties, as do the Red Arrow Diner and the restaurant Chez Vachon in Manchester.
In South Carolina, the Beacon Drive-In in Spartanburg is a bell-ringer for every candidate.
Michele Bachmann played up the stop better than most in August, lingering on a stage set up in the parking lot and dancing with an older fellow to Elvis blaring from loudspeakers. Bachmann then headed inside the restaurant and took the unusual role of calling out a fake order with the guidance of a longtime counter worker.
"Gimme four chili cheese. Gimme four hot dogs." She wrapped up with "And give me four chocolate shakes" as cameras flashed. She walked away with a "chili cheeseburger a-plenty," an artery-clogging haul with onion rings smashed on top of a chili cheeseburger. She invited the cook to bring that stuff to the White House, if she wins the primary and the general election.
Kenny Church, who has co-owned the Beacon for 13 years, said the restaurant's size — with seating for 400 — makes it an attractive spot, along with its diverse clientele.
"It's a cross section of people. You've got businessmen, old, young, African-American, white — it's mixed. It's sort of a melting pot here, so it works real well."
Like Mary Ann's, the Beacon attracts candidates of both parties. Church wouldn't reveal which candidate he favors but said the in-person encounters do make a difference.
"I'll get to see usually three-quarters of the people who are running, and it has changed my vote — how they answer questions and their personality. We get to see them on TV, but seeing them in real life and how they handle pressure does influence us," he said.
Candidates also work the crowds tailgating before the home football games of South Carolina's two biggest college rivals.
Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman did a rare two-fer this year, hitting the crowd at a Clemson University football game and then driving for more than two hours to watch the University of South Carolina play in Columbia.
The Labor Day parade in Chapin, S.C., has been something of a good luck charm for Republican candidates for years, though only former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum showed up this year, when the forecast called for rain.
Chapin Mayor Stan Shealy said more candidates were expected, particularly with a forum that drew nearly the entire field to nearby Columbia.
What of the parade's knack for bringing good luck to candidates? "I guess Santorum's got it," Shealy said. "But he better get to work."
A glance at candidate schedules shows Santorum, more than most, has visited the traditional spots in New Hampshire, with Huntsman making it to a fair number.
In Iowa, popular spots include the Wells Blue Bunny Ice Cream Parlor in Le Mars, Pizza Ranch restaurants and the Iowa State Fair, though some candidates have enjoyed the latter more than others.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the son of a tenant farmer, ate what he called "corny dogs," put his feet up on bales of hay and talked about his appreciation for the agricultural way of life.
Less at ease was Romney, the son of a politician, who grew agitated during his August trip, uttering his "corporations are people" defense when faced with a handful of hecklers.
Associated Press writer Jim Davenport in South Carolina contributed to this report.
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