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.

As schoolteacher Betty Ward evaluates the 16 candidates running for president, uppermost in her mind is: Who will get US troops out of Iraq? She's mulling over whom to vote for.

Donna Richards will vote for someone who can be trusted and whose aim is to bring about peace. Her choice: undecided.

Attorney Andre Gibeau is seeking a candidate with courage to return to Congress much of the power he believes was usurped by President Bush.

Meet some of New Hampshire's freethinking and increasingly dissatisfied independents, who quite possibly hold the key to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. They dwarf the ranks of registered Democrats or Republicans in this state. What they're thinking may well signal which themes will strike a chord with the roughly 20 percent of voters nationwide who consider themselves independents.

"New Hampshire will be a good test to see what [independents] find attractive on both sides," says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Despite their diversity, New Hampshire's independents share some characteristics. They tend to be among the most fiscally conservative of the state's voters. The bad feelings they harbor toward the Bush administration's runaway spending have moved them further away from the GOP, and state polls consistently show they've been tilting toward the Democrats. But they're frustrated with the polarization in American politics and are increasingly dissatisfied with both parties for their inability to tackle America's most intractable problems.

"More than anything they have a lack of confidence in the political leadership," says Dick Bennett, head of American Research Group, a nonpartisan polling firm in Manchester.

Russ Ouellette is among those who have lost faith in political professionals and wants to hear candidates talk about wide-ranging reform. "We can't respond to hurricanes," says the business consultant from Bedford, N.H. "We're at war with an enemy that seems almost made up. We're supposed to live in fear all the time, yet go shopping to solve the problem."

In general, voters are feeling insecurity in nearly every area of their lives, Mr. Bennett says. "People go to work and when they return home they find gas is 7 cents higher."

In the current political environment, the message that resonates most is one that promises hope for a better future and solves such problems. A recurring theme in presidential elections, it's a far more important point to stress this time "because the world we live in is more complex," he adds.

Independents here say that they want a leader who is not only a problem solver but is also forward-thinking.

"I think whoever gets elected now will have a lot more responsibility to the future than presidents of the past," says Ms. Richards. "Before, the focus was on the economy: 'What can I have now?' I think with things like global warming, the depletion of our oil resources, Medicare and Social Security, the next president needs to be forward-thinking, a steward of the planet and the people on it and the programs so we're not headed for a wall ... down the road.

But this can-do spirit should not come at the expense of empathy, she and others agree.

"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.

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:

"There are bigger issues to talk about than who are you voting for. Let's talk about reform."

Donna Richards, small-business owner:

"What I'm looking for ... has to do with who they are as a person and what their policies are, as well. It has to be someone who ... will speak the truth and act according to what he or she has set forth as their core values or principles or policies. I think we've lost that ... trust in our leaders. I think that's not only important to us as citizens of this country, but on the world stage they need to be credible." .

Since independents aren't organized or listed on any party's Rolodex, they play a special role in Granite State politics. They're observers rather than activists, says Arnie Arnesen, a New Hampshire TV and radio talk-show host.

So campaigns reaching out for their support are tailoring their message – with varying levels of success.

Democratic candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has focused on appealing to female voters, has the support of 45 percent of women who are likely to vote in the Democratic primary, according to a poll released by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion on Nov. 11.

Barack Obama is targeting the 18-to-24 demographic, which tends to register as undeclared, says Dick Bennett, head of American Research Group. Mr. Obama leads Ms. Clinton by 13 percent among first-time voters, according to the Marist poll. Overall, he is closing a 20-point gap with Clinton, the Democrats' front-runner.

But "There's been no clear candidate for change. No one's grabbed that mantle, not even Obama," says Dante Scala, a political scientist.

Former Democratic Sen. John Edwards hopes that he will. "My message runs across party lines and ideological lines," he told reporters after a recent speech.

On the Republican side, former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani garners 24 percent of independents, while Sen. John McCain of Arizona captures 22 percent and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney draws 19 percent in the Marist poll. Giuliani receives more backing from moderates than his rivals.

At the same time, GOP candidate Rep. Ron Paul of Texas has piqued the interest among some people here by talking about limited government and withdrawing troops from Iraq. He has polled as high as 7 percent.

"He's the only [Republican] who doesn't scare the daylight out of me," says attorney Andre Gibeau, mostly because of Mr. Paul's focus on constitutional rights. "I don't think any enemy from the outside can do the damage to the United States that we can do internally if we change the nature of our democracy."

Senator McCain's campaign is seeking to revive the magic McCain had when he courted and won voters in 2000. In that New Hampshire primary, the antiestablishment candidates McCain and Bill Bradley (D) competed for support among independent voters, who turned out by a significant margin to help McCain trounce George W. Bush by 19 points.

Although polls show independents are poised to vote in the Democratic contest this time, Mr. Scala cautions that if the Democratic primary looks as if it's going to be a rout, they may vote in the Republican contest instead.

Betty Ward says she's likely to decide which ballot to choose on Election Day and make her final decision in the voting booth. "I really don't know at this point because it's just too far off," she adds.

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