The 'undeclared': New Hampshire's wild card

As another electoral test looms, how independents could decide a race

It was the kind of New Hampshire night that's so cold, the snow squeaks underfoot.

Still, Sherry Gould trudged up the long, slippery driveway toward an elegant house with a large blue sign illumined by the porch light. It read: "McCainiacs for Lieberman." She's come not as a supporter, but as a highly sought-after guest.

Ms. Gould is one of New Hampshire's vaunted "undeclared" voters, independents who make up more than a third of the state's primary base. These voters usually choose people over parties and character over ideology, and they like candidates as independent as they are. Historically, they've been trendsetters, as when they gave Sen. John McCain a big win over his rival, George W. Bush, in 2000.

Now, with the race for the Democratic nomination upended by Sen. John Kerry's surprising win in Iowa and Sen. John Edwards's strong second place, these independents may again be the key to the way New Hampshire votes - and there's already evidence of shifting allegiances.

Some seem to be moving away from Howard Dean and taking a fresh look at Senators Kerry and Edwards. As a new, potentially anti-Dean dynamic is forming, New Hampshire could become the ultimate test of whether his candidacy can survive.

"There's all of this switching going on. A week ago, they broke away from Dean, and went to Clark, and late last week they went to Kerry," says Dick Bennett of American Research Group (ARG) in Manchester. "The trend is down for both Dean and Clark and they have to put the brakes on and reverse the skid. That's very hard to do."

Until last week, Dean had a strong lead among undeclared voters here. But support among them has shrunk even more than it has among other Democrats. According to a tracking poll by ARG, Dean, General Clark and Kerry are now essentially even among the undeclareds.

Their search for a credible rival to Bush, continues Bennet, may push them toward Kerry, with his strong political resume and foreign-policy heft: "My sense is there's an Iowa bounce, and he will pick up more votes."

Lieberman's pitch

The turnout of undeclared voters tends to be lower than that of registered party voters. Indeed, only about 40 percent vote regularly, according to Andrew Smith of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Among registered Republicans and Democrats, in contrast, turnout is about 70 percent. But as John McCain showed in 2000, those undeclareds can be motivated.

"McCain ran a positive campaign here, he was able to tap into people who didn't really follow party politics, he was able to attract them based on his personality and his celebrity," says Professor Smith. "In that sense, Dean and Clark are using some of the tactics that worked for McCain. They're both seen as the outside of the party, but Clark is running a positive campaign, as opposed to Dean, who hasn't made the transition from being 'mad as hell' to giving people a positive reason to vote for him."

Sen. Joe Lieberman is, perhaps, making the most unabashed pitch to McCain independents. He supported the invasion of Iraq and is viewed by many party pundits as too conservative for today's primary-voting Democrats. But he counts his similarities to McCain among his greatest strengths, contending regularly, "I'm the closest to John McCain you can get."

Lieberman's got the full support of a small band of undeclared former McCainiacs, like Don Byrne, a high-tech entrepreneur who was hosting the house party for Lieberman in Bedford, an upscale Manchester suburb.

"At the end of the day, the reason I want to see Joe Lieberman as an alternative to Bush is because I think he's the best candidate," says Mr. Byrne, who jokes that before supporting McCain in 2000, the last time he was active in politics was in college, handing out leaflets for Richard Nixon. "In November, I want to have my pick of the better of two choices." Pollsters are quick to point out that most people who voted for McCain - including undeclareds - are Republicans, and they won't be voting in the Democratic primary.

Voters' ruminations

But some will, like McCain supporter Melinde Sanborn who joined more than 100 people in Byrne's kitchen, den, dining room and living room, chatting and munching on cookies and cheesecake. She's switched her registration from Republican to "undeclared" to vote for Lieberman. "In the [Bush] administration there's a sense the ends justify the means," she says. "I don't approve of their tactics, I don't like the idea that you can't openly criticize them. I'm looking for someone with integrity."

Lieberman, who continues to languish behind the pack, is counting on people like her to pull off a better than expected showing. But many analysts think he'll be disappointed - in part, because he doesn't have any Iowa momentum.

Ms. Gould, adamant that she wants a candidate who can beat Bush, still isn't sure who that candidate is. But she's leaning toward Clark. "Initially the military thing turned me off, but now I think he really understand the risks of war and will be less apt to send people needlessly into war," she from her home in Warner, N.H. "But before I'm sure ..., I need to listen really carefully in the next debate to really know his positions more fully."

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