Midnight in New Hampshire, 4pm Australian time, the citizens of the hamlet of Dixville Notch will assemble in the ballroom of the creepy Balsams Grand Hotel – a Shining double if ever there was one – and cast their votes in individual personal voting booths. The practice – one conducted by a number of surrounding towns – began there in 1960, and has subsequently become a media event, “a symbol of democracy in its purest form”, as the Boston Globe, and countless thousands of desperate journalists have put it.

Like the Iowa vote and other caucuses, the processs – people coming together to thrash the issues out as a community – has become a symbol of grassroots democracy all the more important as levels of campaign spending have reached stratospheric levels, and even underdog campaigns are – by any other measure – slick machines staffed by political professionals. Mitt Romney ended up spending $US622 on every vote he got.

When a process that was once a genuine grassroots selection process becomes the centre of a media polity, its function changes to that of a lens, focusing and distorting the image it receives. The inevitable effect is to personalise politics even more than it already is in a fantastically individualist society.

Thus, as people vying for the job of controlling a nuclear arsenal that could end life on earth go from meet-and-greet to kaffeeklatsch, the focus inevitably turns from the policy to the (wo)man, their character and bearing.

Thus though Barack Obama is to the right of both Clinton and Edwards on a range of issues, from health care to the death penalty, with social policies that would really change very little at all, he has become the image of change and fresh thinking. Why? Because he’s relatively young and thin and beige and bounds around like a puppy. Hillary Clinton meanwhile has been ravaged by nature’s curse on women, and aged suddenly. Whatever hamlet she was in when her face fell, you would have heard it half a state away. The woman who looked the essence of vitality as First Lady now looks tired even when she’s not.

Indeed if she had any chance in New Hampshire – after the polls swung, in 24 hours, from evens to a thirteen point Obama lead – it might have been blown away by her tearful moment in a Q and A, where she said that she “didn’t want us to fall backward as a nation”. The question that prompted the response, it should be noted, was how she kept up her coiffed appearance on the campaign trail.

The moment managed to be both aged and adolescent at the same time, a mixture of despair and petulance. There is no reason to doubt that the despair goes beyond the personal. Clinton’s belief that Obama lacks the experience to deal with the office of President could be based on her memory of the first part of the past Clinton presidency, when by the account of staffers’ memoirs – Sidney Blumenthal’s being the most comprehensive – they wandered around with the a-ses out of their pants for the first year or two. Hillary clearly feels that she has an opportunity denied to almost everyone – to have a first term that does not largely consist of a trek up the learning curve. If nature is cruel (she may be thinking) then history is psychotic, choosing two Bushes and the wrong Clinton.

If she loses in New Hampshire, what will she do? She won’t win South Carolina, despite being a Southern gal. If she stays in, “tsunami Tuesday”, the 19 state primary on 5 February, will be her last role of the dice. Though far from trustworthy, Drudge may be right in saying she’ll quit immediately “to not damage the Clinton brand” – it being apparently unscathed by Clinton the first junking off into the staff.

In that respect, how sadly ironic that her fate is being decided in a town called Dixville Notch in – and, oh dear reader, it is true – Coos County.