Independent Voters Key to Winning N.H.

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New Hampshire is a state in which independent voters rule. Republican John McCain is popular there, and while Democrat Barack Obama narrowly lost the presidential primary, he too has a loyal following there. Women and older voters may hold the key to wining in November.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

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

ARI SHAPIRO, host:

And I'm Ari Shapiro. Good morning. Today, Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama campaigned together for the first time. The big rally is in a town called Unity - truly - in New Hampshire. The state's been unpredictable in recent elections. It went for Republican George W. Bush in 2000, and four years later, the state went for Democrat John Kerry. Analysts predict it'll be fiercely contested real estate this year between Obama and Republican John McCain. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Manchester.

DON GONYEA: John McCain is the kind of Republican New Hampshire likes. He's known for an independent streak, for breaking with his party on occasion, and he has a history of success in the state. Eight years ago, he won the GOP primary here, putting a big scare into George W. Bush in the process. And in January of this year, a McCain campaign on life support got a huge boost from the Granite State.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Republican Presidential Candidate): I'm past the age when I can claim the noun kid, no matter what adjective precedes it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Sen. McCAIN: But tonight, we sure showed them what a comeback looks like.

GONYEA: For Obama, New Hampshire has been a bit more complicated. He came here in January, fresh off a big victory in the Iowa caucuses. Polls showed him with a growing lead, but he lost, turning what was to have been a victory speech into a concession speech.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois; Democratic Presidential Candidate): For when we have faced down impossible odds, when we've been told we're not ready or that we shouldn't try or that we can't, generations of Americans have responded with a simple creed that sums up a spirit of a people: Yes, we can.

(Soundbite of cheering)

Sen. OBAMA: Yes, we can. Yes, we can.

Unidentified Group: Yes, we can.

GONYEA: Still, Obama seems to have gotten a surge in New Hampshire since sewing up the nomination. The latest poll gives him a double-digit lead over McCain. But that bounce also prompts some words of caution from Dartmouth College political scientist Linda Fowler.

Professor LINDA FOWLER (Political Scientist, Dartmouth College): Remember, the New Hampshire polls had Obama ahead of Clinton by 13 percent. And the reason why New Hampshire is hard to poll for state-wide results is because we have so many independents here.

GONYEA: Count 32-year-old Matthew Johnson as a member of that group. He's a middle-school teacher who works summers at a friend's retail shop in Portsmouth.

Mr. MATTHEW JOHNSON (Middle School Teacher): We're a higher-end men's and women's apparel store, and we're also a full-time skateboard shop.

GONYEA: Johnson has a long list of worries.

Mr. JOHNSON: I mean, the quagmire overseas, and our foreign-trade policy, and the economy, more doing about, you know - I mean, there's a lot of problems. I've never seen this many problems stacked up.

GONYEA: So that said, are you leaning one way or another, toward Obama or McCain at this point?

Mr. JOHNSON: No, I'm really not.

GONYEA: And while both Obama and McCain will be selling themselves to independents as the candidate who can best bridge party divides to get things done, just as important for Obama is winning over those former Hillary Clinton supporters, still disappointed that her candidacy fell short of the White House. Thirty-five-year-old Manchester resident Jessica Faye(ph) says it was hard to see Clinton lose, but…

Ms. JESSICA FAYE (Manchester, New Hampshire, Resident): I have to go with the party. I couldn't have a Republican in office for another four years. It would break my heart. So I have to go with Obama, because that's my choice.

GONYEA: Still, she says she has lots of friends who aren't yet ready to say the same. A new poll does show that just half of those former Hillary Clinton supporters polled say that they will support the Democratic nominee, which means Obama's still got work to do there.

McCain, meanwhile, has no such troubles with big Republican divisions up in New Hampshire. Take 55-year-old Charles Berthume(ph).

You're a Republican.

Mr. CHARLES BERTHUME (New Hampshire Resident): Always have been.

GONYEA: John McCain?

Mr. BERTHUME: Well, if you're going to survive being a POW for all those years, I just think that if McCain is president, we'll have a stronger foreign policy.

GONYEA: Foreign policy is McCain's strength, but it may be neutralized by deep worries in this state about the war, including among the independents he needs. Another problem for McCain is what polls show to be a lack of enthusiasm among many Republicans this year. And for McCain to carry New Hampshire in November, he'll need to do more than rely on his historic appeal in the state. Don Gonyea, NPR News, Manchester.

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