Independent Voters Respond to Weekend Debates

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A group of undecided voters in New Hampshire work their way toward being decided. New Hampshire holds the nation's first presidential primary Jan. 8. The voters were paying attention to ABC News and Facebook debates over the weekend.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

We've been listening in as some undecided voters work their way toward being decided. These voters are in New Hampshire. Their state holds the nation's first presidential primary tomorrow. The voters were paying attention to ABC News and Facebook debates over the weekend.

And NPR's Linda Wertheimer was paying attention to them.

LINDA WERTHEIMER: Will three hours of face time with all 10 candidates make the sale to voters both undecided and independent? Not easily. Dan Rothman(ph) sells computers. He listened to the Republicans and made some cuts.

Ms. DAN ROTHMAN (Resident, New Hampshire): Giuliani, Romney and Thompson frightened me with their approach to the world - that we know better with preemptive strikes, and so they're off my list. And I'm looking for strong Republican candidate who is a reasonable person.

WERTHEIMER: Most of our independents who lean Democratic like John McCain. Al Davenport(ph), who sells industrial equipment, is in that group. In other years, he might even have voted for him.

Mr. AL DAVENPORT (Resident, New Hampshire): I think that John McCain made - he impressed me a little bit more today because I think he's a little bit more sincere than he was before. I think he is a man who believes in what he's doing even though I don't believe in everything that he believes in. I think he is a man of his own convictions.

WERTHEIMER: But some McCain fans felt he should not have mocked Mitt Romney for changing his positions on issues like abortion. McCain called Romney the candidate of change. Amy Briar(ph), who works for a software company, thought that was beneath him.

Ms. AMY BRIAR (Resident, New Hampshire): In the past and other debates, he has really risen above, I think, the fray of the rest of that kind of stuff. So I was a little disappointed to see him go there. I still passionately believe he's a person who could lead our country successfully in the future.

WERTHEIMER: Steve Cavatar(ph) works with disabled people. He will vote in the Democratic primary, where change is the big issue. He was amused by McCain.

Ms. STEVE CAVATAR (Resident, New Hampshire): He tried to bring that out in the debate and Romney reacted against him and said that personal bias wouldn't really be helpful right now, and yet he's the one that's running negative ads on TV and then he's in the debate going wah, wah, wah.

WERTHEIMER: What about the man who won the Iowa caucuses, Mike Huckabee? Barbara King(ph), who's a marketing manager for a computer company, noticed less talk of Christian values.

Ms. BARBARA KING (Resident, New Hampshire): I thought he almost tried to hide them tonight. That - he talked about God when he impacted the Constitution, when he referenced that. Other than that, he really - I don't think we saw the true Huckabee, or at least the gentleman he was in Iowa, and the person I think he'll be in any Southern primary.

WERTHEIMER: Huckabee impressed Tony Lamoli(ph) who works for the phone company.

Mr. TONY LAMOLI (Resident, New Hampshire): I think Huckabee, who I've seen so far, could stand up at least with his personality and charisma to Obama. If Huckabee cannot be portrayed as a whacko, right-wing, Bible thumper, I think he has a chance, at least, intellectually at standing up and dealing with Obama.

WERTHEIMER: That conversation took place between debates. After 90 minutes of Democratic candidates, we finally had a decision. Dot Porniay(ph), office manager for a nonprofit group.

Ms. DOT PORNIAY (Resident, New Hampshire): I came here leaning toward Obama, but I think that Richardson took my vote tonight.

WERTHEIMER: Pat Garren(ph) is still undecided. She liked the front-runners but worried a bit about Obama.

Ms. PAT GARREN (Resident, New Hampshire): I'm wondering if he were feeling well tonight because he was so low-key. I saw him yesterday and he was very animated. I thought Hillary Clinton did extremely well tonight. I have not heard her in person. And I think she probably helped herself after not doing so well in Iowa.

WERTHEIMER: At the end, the majority of our group thought they'd likely vote for some Democrat. Dan Rothman said he was very impressed with Obama and by the end of the debate liked Clinton. However…

Mr. ROTHMAN: I'm voting strategically. I'm not voting for president, and I may well vote in the Republican for Huckabee, who is a pleasant surprise, or McCain just to avoid having any of these lunatics winning the primary for the Republicans.

WERTHEIMER: To help the GOP pick a candidate he can live with, you understand, just in case.

Steve Capithorn's(ph), voting for a Democrat. He said his family has been playing "if the election were today" since last summer.

Mr. STEVE CAPITORNS (Resident, New Hampshire): Most everybody on the porch said Hillary. And we did the same thing in my sister's living room at Thanksgiving and everybody said Obama. And then we did the same thing in a restaurant at Christmastime and everybody said, I'm undecided.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: Undecided, independent New Hampshire voters we met in Concord.

Linda Wertheimer, NPR News.

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New Hampshire Campaign Goes Door to Door

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Video: Canvassing in NH
David Gilkey/NPR

Don't be fooled by the pretty pictures of campaign rallies in New Hampshire.

Sure, you can be mesmerized by the banners and balloons and the sing-song cadence of the candidates. But none of that gets people to the polls on primary day.

Voters in New Hampshire need the personal touch. The phone call, the handshake, the knock on the door. Every campaign has compiled a list of the people who are likely to support their candidate. The names are culled from events and Internet lists and secret marketing databases. Even in these high-tech days of voter profiling and targeted e-mail, there's no better way to reach out to those people than by standing on their front stoop.

I went out with video producer David Gilkey to learn the art of street-level politics, and it wasn't hard to find the experts. On just about every cold sidewalk in New Hampshire is someone with a clipboard, carrying campaign literature and peering up at house numbers.

We chose to tag along with two volunteers from the John Edwards campaign as they knocked on doors in Portsmouth, but we could have picked any campaign, any town. We ran into canvassers for Bill Richardson and Barack Obama. I saw a team of women with Hillary Clinton signs heading up the next street. It's crowded with true believers out there.

In the end, we found that there are only a few tricks you need to learn to do this job. Wear sturdy shoes and two pairs of socks. Don't stand too close to the door when it opens. And be relentlessly upbeat. The guys we were out with never argued with voters; they just asked some gentle questions and reminded them to vote on Tuesday. But that may be enough. Political operatives believe that you can increase the likelihood that people will vote for a candidate by investing those voters in a campaign. Hand them buttons. Provide lawn signs. And most effectively, send a neighbor over to ask them if they are committed to vote for the candidate. Come Election Day, the voter won't want to disappoint the team.

Or that's the theory anyway. On the other side of the door, the constant stream of phone calls and door-knocks can drive a voter nuts. Even though we got to the front porch of Melissa Costa by 11 a.m., she had already received three campaign calls and two personal visits. She admitted that sometimes she just turns her hearing aid off and goes upstairs to avoid the politics. But most of the time, she opens the door and lets the volunteers give it their best shot.

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