LIANE HANSEN, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.
This past week, New Hampshire voters got the chance to judge all the major presidential candidates - eight Democrats debated in Manchester last Sunday, 10 Republicans squared off there two days later. New Hampshire Public Radio's Jon Greenberg watched both debates from 30 miles away in the small town of Exeter.
He viewed the Democratic debate in the company of some undecided Democrats; and he watched the Republicans with some GOP loyalists who have yet to make up their minds. We'll be checking in with voters in Exeter in the months leading up to next winter's New Hampshire primary.
Jon reports now on what's on their minds.
JON GREENBERG: An 18th century farmhouse with low, low ceilings was the site for the Democratic debate watch. Eric Lipset(ph), a 41-year-old salesman of specialty business software, stooped to enter the room and squeezed himself in front of the TV with two other Exeter Democrats - Karen Prior(ph) and Herb Moyer(ph).
(Soundbite of introduction of Democratic debate)
Unidentified Man #1: Welcome to New Hampshire, site of the first in the nation's Democratic primary…
GREENBERG: Within a few minutes, the subject was Iraq; and Eric found himself in the interesting position of being the only person on the couch who had initially supported going to war.
Mr. ERIC LIPSET (Resident, Exeter, New Hampshire): I took a position that I believed the evidence that was presented at the time. I've had no problem with the fact that, you know, Senator Clinton is now changing her viewpoint as I have also changed my viewpoint. Now the question is going back to what Edwards just said, who's going to lead us out of it.
GREENBERG: The other Democrats, Karen and Herb, opposed the war from the start. But today, those differences don't matter. All three of these voters want a candidate who will draw a line in the sand and say this war must end. It rang true in Exeter when John Edwards said Democratic leaders lost courage on the Iraq funding bill.
Senator JOHN EDWARDS (Democrat, North Carolina; Presidential Candidate): And then it came back. And then it was the moment of truth. And I said throughout the…
Mr. HERB MOYER (Resident, Exeter, New Hampshire): And they caved.
Ms. KAREN PRIOR (Resident, Exeter, New Hampshire): They did cave. What was that about?
Mr. LIPSET: I Agree. They did cave.
Ms. PRIOR: They did cave. They so caved.
Mr. MOYER: They missed these opportunities in…
Ms. PRIOR: To separate themselves, and I don't know - it's like they're still afraid of the Republicans.
GREENBERG: At the end of the evening, it was Edwards who most impressed these voters. New York Senator Hillary Clinton did not. They all agreed with Herb's summary on Clinton.
Mr. MOYER: She had safe answers, and I don't think the next Democratic nominee is going to be somebody who has safe answers. If it is then we risk losing again.
GREENBERG: Two nights later, it was the Republicans' turn to debate. Jay Kelly(ph), an investment manager for a large foundation, and his wife Laurie(ph) hosted. Marie Warlick(ph) who works in a medical testing lab joined them. Of the three, Laurie had the least patience with the war in Iraq; and Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney scored points when he emphasized regional diplomacy to deal with Iran.
Governor MITT ROMNEY (Republican, Massachusetts; Presidential Candidate): We combine for an effort to help move Islam toward modernity. That's what we're…
Ms. LAURIE KELLY (Resident, Exeter, New Hampshire): I like what he's saying. They're talking to people. Let's get along. Let's see how we can work this out. Why then…
(Soundbite of tapping)
Ms. KELLY: Okay, I go nuke them. It can't hurt.
Mr. JAY KELLY (Resident, Exeter, New Hampshire): And it may not work.
Ms. KELLY: It could save some people's lives.
Mr. KELLY: Yeah, but it may not work. And if doesn't work, we need to stop this. We can't allow Iran to have nuclear weapons.
GREENBERG: But as the evening worn on, Romney faded across the board for these Republicans. He's still on their list; but, especially, for Jay and Marie, he came across as too prepared, too much as they put it - of a politician.
Ms. MARIE WARLICK (Resident, Exeter, New Hampshire): He's trying to make himself look really conservative. I'm wondering would he really stand up the way he says he would and support the certain things he says he would.
GREENBERG: At the end of the debate, among this group, it was John McCain who did himself the most good. They like his direct style. Marie has strong reservations about McCain's support for the immigration bill that Republicans just helped derail. But when McCain talked about the need to take action on immigration, he connected with Jay. For Jay, most of the other candidates simply engaged in posturing.
Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona; Presidential Candidate): And it is a serious national security problem. We need to act…
Mr. KELLY: He has crossed the aisle. He's worked with Kennedy - I don't completely care for Kennedy, he's an idiot - but he has reached out. He's led an effort that resulted in a compromised that got something done.
GREENBERG: Both the Republican and Democratic debate watchers at Exeter thought the debates were worthwhile. Their interest in some of the lesser-known candidates was piqued, but there was no dramatic twist that sent a dark horse sprinting out of the pack. In general, these voters came away with a clear sense of who they prefer among the leading contenders - for the time being.
For NPR News, I'm Jon Greenberg.
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