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In New Hampshire, the swing voters who count first

In New Hampshire, undeclared voters dominate the political landscape and may hold the key to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

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"I would like to see somebody who cares more about the country than the party, someone who really cares about the future of our children and the children I teach, like what does the future look like 15 if not 20 years down the road," says Ms. Ward, who voted for Republican John McCain in the 2000 primary and Democrat Howard Dean in the 2004 primary.

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Independents are especially strong here because state rules allow them to pick up a ballot from either party on primary day, cast their vote, and then return to undeclared status before they leave the polls. Their numbers are growing. In 1992, they constituted 22 percent of the state's electorate, according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate at American University in Washington. Now at 44 percent, they're far more numerous than registered Democrats (26 percent) and Republicans (30 percent).

Those numbers translate into real power. In 2006, independents helped unseat the state's two US representatives, reelect a Democratic governor, and give Democrats control of both houses in the state legislature for the first time since 1912.

But lately independents have become disenchanted with the Democratic Party because of a lack of action in Congress on a withdrawal plan from Iraq since the 2006 midterm elections, Bennett says.

"What our country is doing does not represent me as an American," Ward says. "I think there's a disconnect between what our policies are and what people want. In 2006, the election was to stop the war. To take the majority rule and make some impact.... Now we might be going to Iran. The war hasn't stopped in Iraq."

Many of independents' votes are still up for grabs in the upcoming primary, which has not yet been officially scheduled. While 41 percent of the state's voters say they plan to vote in the Democratic primary, another 40 percent haven't decided which primary they will vote in, according to a poll taken last month by the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. Just 19 percent plan to participate in the GOP primary, the poll reported.

The growth of independents is mirrored nationwide. In 1960, only 1.6 percent of the electorate identified themselves as independent; in 2004, they accounted for 21.7 percent in the 28 states and the District of Columbia that register voters by party, according to the Center for the Study of the American Electorate.

Their numbers have swelled because many voters have become "dulled" by or have stopped believing in politics, says Curtis Gans, the center's director.

As the state waits for New Hampshire's secretary of state, Bill Gardner, to set the primary date, independents, in particular, say they are thankful that the election isn't tomorrow since they haven't found their candidate yet.

"I'm glad I don't have to decide yet. I have one little vote but to me it's very important," Richards says.

Independent voters of all stripes share what kind of president they seek.

Betty Ward, schoolteacher:

"There's so many tiers of handlers. Like a corporation within itself. They're so guarded. They're so worried about winning. I just don't think all of this is real; it's almost surreal. I would like something really authentic. I want to feel that somebody up there has hope.... I want to be inspired."

Andre Gibeau, attorney:

"I want the professor candidate. I want the person who takes it all in and thinks about it and puts together the people to think about it."

Russ Ouellette, consultant: