MANCHESTER, N.H. – Everyone in politics should heed the advice of baseball legend Casey Stengel: "Never make predictions, especially about the future."
That never seemed truer than after spending several days in South Carolina with Texas Gov. Rick Perry, then crossing the Mason-Dixon Line to do the same with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney in New Hampshire.
Three thousand miles of back roads, Main Streets, interstates and airports, listening to voters of every shape, size, denomination and color, provides a unique view of the coming presidential election. In fact, it’s a lot like looking through a kaleidoscope.
From one-on-one interviews with both men, the most definitive prediction that can be made is that anything can happen between now and the first contests early next year.
Perry arrived in South Carolina – an early primary state where the slogan, "We pick presidents," is proudly displayed at every event – in a decked-out campaign bus and an extensive advance team in dark glasses and matching suits, looking impressively presidential.
"There are probably a thousand other issues … but when you look at the core of what America needs, it is a president who believes in free enterprise," he said.
"If you can free the job-creators from over-taxation and over-regulation and over-litigation, then they will risk their capital and create jobs, and Americans can get working again. That is the story of Rick Perry."
Romney hit New Hampshire in a rented car, where move-in traffic at a local college caused him to be late for a town-hall event in Keene. So he got out and walked.
"Been there, done that," he said of super-sized campaigns. "I recognize that that is not what creates a successful campaign."
Perry was on fire in the Palmetto State, giving short, sizzling speeches to packed crowds in diners, restaurants and a community hospital.
He has locked up nearly a score of endorsements from local officials and is set to announce a South Carolina field staff of more than a dozen respected, connected GOP operatives.
At every event in New Hampshire, Romney, too, gave impassioned speeches – much longer and more detailed. He also took questions, tough questions; Granite State voters expect candidates to be schooled on the issues and remind them of that expectation over and over.
Before and after each event, he shook hands and talked to people, sometimes until his staff fetched him to leave for the next event.
He doesn’t mind lingering, he said: "This is the best part of campaigning."
While her husband was in New Hampshire, Ann Romney was in the early caucus state of Nevada. "I miss not having her by my side," Romney said during an interview.
Anita Perry was with her husband in South Carolina, spending most of her time introducing herself to voters. "Hi, I am Anita Perry, so nice of you to come and visit with us," she told a group of women in a crowded Greenville diner.
The Perrys’ daughter, Sidney, rode along, spending her 25th birthday on the campaign bus – "probably not how she expected to spend (it)," her father joked.
American politics is intimate, not just the broad strokes of mishaps, mistakes and misspoken moments captured by TV cameras, blogs and social media.
People who vote early vote earnestly, and take it seriously. They stand in the heat, cold or rain, shoulder to shoulder with strangers, to hear what a candidate has to say.
Whether they pack diners or warehouses, airplane hangers or grocery stores, they ask questions and stay till the very end.
National polls show Perry up over Romney, 27 percent to 14 percent, right now among Republican primary voters. Perry’s team knows there is no "national" Republican primary, however.
Both men must plot a course through the primary schedule. Iowa and South Carolina are easy pick-offs for Perry; New Hampshire, Nevada and Florida may favor Romney.
Both admit that electability weighs on the minds of GOP primary voters.
"Most races are lost, not won," Perry said towards the end of an interview, an unintentional twist on another Stengel quote.
And, walking into a room with Fenway Park’s "Green Monster" painted on its cinderblock wall, Romney said that nothing teaches you more about winning than losing.