Tuesday's primary prize: the changeables

In New Hampshire, it's the voters now undecided who can make a big difference.

Bill Small started out the evening interested in George W. Bush and John McCain, but wound up more intrigued by Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes. He has never voted in a primary election before.

His wife, Judy, a registered independent, still can't decide between Governor Bush and Senator McCain. And their friend, Laura Nelson, a Democrat, is also stuck between Vice President Al Gore and former Sen. Bill Bradley.

With a handful of days remaining before New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary Feb. 1, these voters - gathered in a living room here to watch the final debates before that crucial vote - represent the narrow slice of this state's electorate that all the candidates are gunning for: new voters, independents, and the undecided.

"They've got to decide soon," says Dick Bennett, an independent New Hampshire pollster.

"How they turn could make a big difference for each candidate."

Each candidate has much on the line. The two national front-runners - the Democratic Gore and Republican Bush, governor of Texas - have to do well enough to maintain the expectation that they'll be their parties' nominees. The two upstarts - Republican McCain and Democrat Bradley - also have to perform well, just to maintain their viability as candidates and keep the campaign cash flowing. The others, trailing far behind in polls here, need to beat expectations.

So far, analysts say, McCain and Bradley are likely to gain the most from that final pool of coveted voters.

On the Democratic side, Gore is enjoying a comfortable lead in polls with around 50 percent support, with Bradley scoring in the mid-30s. This means many Democrats remain undecided - and if the past is any guide, Bradley stands to win more of those votes than Gore. As the sitting vice president, Gore is perceived as the incumbent candidate. Typically, late-deciding voters tend to break for the challenger.

In the Republican field - now down to five, after the departure of Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch - McCain remains in good shape to win in New Hampshire. Polls show him up by 6 to 12 points over Bush, with his lead growing. Mr. Bennett expects McCain to do well among new voters, even better than he will do among independents, who are already a strong constituency for him. McCain is also gaining ground over Bush among registered Republicans.

About 10 percent of the Republican vote here will be new voters - mainly young people, but also people who have moved to New Hampshire from other states since the last election - and Bennett sees about 70 percent going for McCain. The senator is already getting more than 50 percent of the independent vote.

Analysts aren't surprised that new voters are breaking so strongly for McCain. First-time voters are often motivated to make a statement with their votes - and to go against the party establishment's favored candidate, in this case, Bush.

McCain's views and style also seem a natural fit for New Hampshire Republicans, who tend to be moderate. He favors smaller tax cuts than Bush does, and deemphasizes social issues, such as abortion, in his stump speech. In contrast with Iowa, New Hampshire Republicans tend to view social issues as private matters that belong outside the realm of politics.

Furthermore, with unemployment here below 3 percent, polls show that leadership style is a more important factor to voters than are issues. And on that score, McCain is coming out way ahead of Bush.

"This is an issueless campaign," says Andy Smith, director of the survey center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. "People are paying attention to other cues, like whether or not they think the person stands up for his beliefs, which they see as a sign of leadership."

On that score - "standing up for his beliefs" - a UNH survey on the most important candidate qualities shows McCain beating Bush hands-down, 51 percent to 24 percent. Here at the home of Karen and Marc Noel, hosts of the impromptu debate-watching party, all the viewers tended to focus more on the candidates' styles than on their positions. Though Karen, a registered independent, has already decided she'll vote for McCain, she watched the Democratic debate with interest - and felt Gore whined too much.

Her friend, Laura Nelson, principal of the middle school in nearby Hooksett, was concerned that Bradley didn't show enough emotion. "He just didn't have the spark, he's too laid back," she says. Still, she's reserving judgment until she looks at the votesmart.com Web site, which posts the candidates' views on major issues.

Marc Noel says he's sticking with Mr. Forbes, the wealthy publisher. "I like his experience in business," he says, as he sauts venison from a deer he shot himself. "I know he won't win, but I'll vote for him anyway. I like the fact that he's not a politician."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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