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Charles Dharapak, ASSOCIATED PRESS
A voter wears a sticker after voting on primary election day at a polling station at Webster School in Manchester, N.H., Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)
For years, no one who lost a New Hampshire primary won the presidency — until Bill Clinton lost in 1992. George W. Bush lost in 2000 and Barack Obama lost in 2008.

CONCORD, N.H. — For 60 years, New Hampshire has jealously guarded the right to hold the earliest presidential primary, fending off bigger states that claimed that the small New England state was too white to represent the nation's diverse population.

In its defense, New Hampshire jokingly brags that its voters won't pick a presidential candidate until they've met at least three times face-to-face — rather than seeing the person in television ads or at large events typical of bigger states. New Hampshire voters expect to shake hands with candidates at coffees that supporters host in their homes or at backyard barbecues.

That tradition paid off in 1976 for a little-known peanut farmer and former Georgia governor. Jimmy Carter won in New Hampshire and went on to become president.

New Hampshire established its primary in 1916 to pick delegates to the national nominating conventions, but no candidates came to campaign. That all changed in 1952, when the primary became a launching pad for candidates seeking the White House.

For years, no one who lost a New Hampshire primary won the presidency — until Bill Clinton lost in 1992. George W. Bush lost in 2000 and Barack Obama lost in 2008.

Sometimes a New Hampshire loser can turn a loss into a victory. Clinton's second-place finish after trailing badly in the polls earned him the label as the "comeback kid." In 1968, Sen. Eugene McCarthy's strong second-place finish helped galvanize opposition to the Vietnam War and push President Lyndon Johnson from the race.

By law, New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner must set the primary at least seven days ahead of all similar contests regardless of dates selected by the national parties. As other states have moved up their contests, New Hampshire has countered by holding its primary earlier and earlier.

This year, Gardner threatened to set a December 2011 date if Nevada insisted on holding its caucuses Jan. 14. Nevada decided to hold them in February, and Gardner set New Hampshire's date on Jan. 10, making it the earliest primary. Iowa's caucuses took place Jan. 3.

Primaries are statewide elections in which voters cast ballots at the polls, while caucuses are party meetings in which registered voters gather to discuss candidates and select delegates.

New Hampshire primary supporters argue that the state is small enough — about 1.3 million people — to give voters a chance to meet candidates and ask questions. New Hampshire prides itself on its government being close to the people with a 400-member House, which will be one representative for every 3,291 people when new districts are drawn next year.

Though almost 94 percent of the population is white, the number of immigrants settling in the state is gradually changing that demographic.

Also changing is the state's once rock-solid Republican majority. The 312,621 undeclared voters now outnumber both registered Democrats (223,151) and Republicans (231,611).

In general elections, Democrat Barack Obama won the state in 2008 and Democrat John Kerry edged Bush in 2004. Many political pundits place New Hampshire and its four electoral votes in the purple column — states up for grabs.