February 07, 2000 12:00 PM

Leaving no vote to chance, John McCain twice met with Neil Tillotson, patriarch of tiny Dixville Notch, N.H. (pop. 33), where 29 ballots would be up for grabs Feb. 1. The Republican presidential hopeful asked Tillotson to name his favorite campaigner. “Roosevelt,” he replied. A fine man, FDR, agreed McCain. “No,” corrected Tillotson, “Teddy Roosevelt!”

At 101, he has been courted in his lifetime by scores of campaigners who hope that as Tillotson goes, so goes the nation. In keeping with a 40-year tradition, Tillotson, a lifelong Republican, plans to shuffle into the local Balsams ski resort and, just past midnight on Feb. 1, cast the nation’s first primary-season ballot. He wouldn’t say whom he might bless, but hinted that McCain “makes a good impression.”

Dixville Notch’s first-votes-counted custom dates back to 1960, when the town, determined to be first in something, opened its polls at midnight on primary day. First to vote is usually the oldest resident–though Tillotson has clout as well as seniority. A high school dropout who once invented a way to make balloons in various shapes, he founded a rubber factory, bought the Balsams and owns another 20,000 acres. But money isn’t everything, says thrice-married Tillotson, who has 25 grandchildren, 27 great-grandkids and four surviving children. “You’re no better or no worse,” he says, “if you’ve got a lot or a little.”

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