Republican presidential candidates with nothing to lose are making a beeline for New Hampshire, hoping that the state's affection for the underdog and penchant for the political surprise propels them into contention for the nomination.

It worked for John McCain in 2008. The Arizona senator limped into New Hampshire a dead man walking, and sprinted out a favorite for the Republican presidential nomination, which he eventually won.

It didn't work for Jon Huntsman in four years later. The former Utah governor, positioned too pragmatic and centrist for the Iowa caucuses, pinned all of his hopes on New Hampshire, finished a disappointing third, and exited the race. This time around, Republican contenders with limited appeal in the early primary states, minimal resources, or a combination of both, are focusing their campaigns on New Hampshire.

Among them: Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio, as well as Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina.

Whether the strategy works is another matter.

"Candidates and pundits often oversimplify the play in New Hampshire, thinking John McCain's [2008] magic can be recreated by simply showing up a lot and being a moderate. The truth is more complicated than that," said one New Hampshire Republican advising a 2016 candidate.

New Hampshire hosts the second nominating contest, and first traditional primary, of the GOP calendar, making it an already busy and crucial Republican and Democratic presidential battleground. Some candidates, concluding they can't succeed in the grassroots-heavy Iowa caucuses, which come first and can favor candidates perceived as more conservative, are shifting their attention to the Granite State at the outset, hoping success there can send them to South Carolina, home of the third primary, with momentum.

Neither Christie, Kasich or Graham have said their 2016 campaigns rely solely on the New England battleground; but both have telegraphed that their path to the nomination depends on a breakout finish there.

The open invite, unscripted town hall meeting that is a staple of the New Hampshire campaign circuit is a good fit for authentic, brash politicians like Christie and Kasich, as well as Graham, who has been endorsed by McCain. The state offers other political advantages to underdogs and accessible pols.

It's small, making it easy to crisscross and blanket in advertising (although the Boston media market that covers New Hampshire is expensive;) local, earned media is easy to come by and, unlike other states, still influential; and independents can vote in the primary. That offers less dogmatic Republicans an opportunity to win by expanding the electorate. These qualities made the state fertile ground for McCain, who parlayed his straight-talking, maverick image to two New Hampshire upsets.

Count McCain among those who believe in the New Hampshire or bust strategy. "You could argue that the Iowa caucuses are almost irrelevant in many respects, when you look who has won and when you look who has gone on to get the nomination," the senator said Thursday during a brief interview.

Heading into the 2008 presidential primaries, the one-time front-runner's campaign had imploded, and was so broke most thought McCain would drop out. But instead, he ignored Iowa, host of the first nominating contest, and stumped tirelessly around New Hampshire. The senator ended up defeating Mitt Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, and used the victory as a springboard to win South Carolina and Florida.

McCain conceded that this critical win might not have happened had he not had an existing base of support. McCain had won the presidential primary there eight years earlier, surprising establishment favorite George W. Bush, the governor of Texas. That experience and the connections McCain developed boosted him in 2008. But he feels that even a first-time candidate could succeed in 2016 with a New Hampshire-centric strategy.

McCain said that Granite Staters "care only about New Hampshire. They feel, correctly, that they play a unique role — that every vote counts. If you've got 15 people on the ballot, I mean every single vote will count."

Some disagree. Their analysis is that New Hampshire Republicans look askance at candidates who cling to their state because they are deemed too weak to compete elsewhere, whether for ideological or operational reasons.

Political observers and GOP insiders who subscribe to this viewpoint argue that McCain underestimates just how unique of a candidate he was in 2008. The senator was a local darling going back to the 2000 primary, and whose image was stronger than his national standing reflected because he was an early favorite for the nomination whose polling in New Hampshire was never as bad as it was elsewhere.

New Hampshire Republicans, insiders and observers add, are jealous of their power to anoint the nominee, and are less likely to flock to candidate that isn't viewed broadly as a strong contender. That's why it's important for a candidate to project viability in the other early states, and spend time in them, even if the bulk of their itinerary is booked with Granite State events.

"Candidates that say they're going to focus just on New Hampshire — they usually don't do that well," said Andrew E. Smith, associate professor of practice in political science and director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

Disclosure: The author's wife works as an adviser to Scott Walker