San Diego Union Tribune

January 8, 2008

2008 VOTE: PRESIDENT
Independents key in New Hampshire

McCain, Obama appeal to undeclared voters

COPLEY NEWS SERVICE

 

 
bullet Candidates sprint into final stretch in N.H.

NASHUA, N.H. – In the days leading up to today's primary, candidates in both parties redoubled their efforts to appeal to political independents, who hold the key to electoral success in New Hampshire.

The clout wielded by independents has caught the eye of presidential contenders for a simple reason: This group has grown from 32 percent of the electorate a dozen years ago to 44 percent now, far outstripping the rolls of the two major parties.

 


 
Associated Press
Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain of Arizona and his wife, Cindy, greeted supporters yesterday during a campaign stop at the town square in Keene, N.H.

Eight years ago, independents – officially known here as undeclared voters – made their presence felt when they overwhelmingly supported Sen. John McCain of Arizona in the Republican primary, boosting him to a landslide victory over George W. Bush. Now, pollsters and analysts say a smaller, but still crucial, segment of that group is again lining up behind McCain, while a potentially larger number of independents are preparing to vote for Sen. Barack Obama, D-Illinois.

Unlike some states, New Hampshire allows independents to vote in either party's primary.

“It's going to be extremely important on both sides – because of the volume of it,” pollster Dick Bennett said. “It is such a big group that it looks like the overall population of the state, so one candidate is not going to appeal to all of them.”

Online: Political writer John Marelius will be taking your questions during a live online chat from 10 to 11 a.m. today at uniontrib.com/chat, and politics editor Michael Smolens will be talking presidential politics at signonradio.com at noon today.

Of the Democratic hopefuls, Obama appears to have devoted the most time to cultivating independent voters, often directly appealing to them at rallies. Campaign observers say his main Democratic rival, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, has placed a greater reliance on a strong organization and an appeal to party regulars.

At his first campaign event since arriving here Friday after his victory in the Iowa caucuses, Obama pointed out an undeclared voter and good humoredly said that his campaign would be “coming after you hard.” He alluded to two of the key concerns of independent voters – the Iraq war and global warming.

“We have the chance to pull Democrats and Republicans and independents together and stand up once and for all and say we are one nation, we are one people and our time for change has come,” Obama said.

Afterward, one independent voter, John Swope, 70, a retiree from an insurance company, said, “I think he has a better chance of bringing the country together than his opponent – Hillary has an awful lot of baggage. We need to change America's image in the world and Barack would do that from the day he's elected. He's preaching hope, and I'm buying.”

 


 
JOE RAEDLE / Getty Images
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton campaigned yesterday in Manchester, N.H., joined by her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, and her husband, former President Bill Clinton

McCain's aides acknowledge that he will not generate the same amount of backing from independents as he did in 2000. In large part, that is due to his passionate support of the war in Iraq, an unpopular cause with many of those who voted for him before.

But in the last few weeks, no other candidate in either party has lavished as much attention on New Hampshire as McCain. He seems to be luring back at least some independents with a combination of tough rhetoric about “pork barrel” spending and a willingness to embrace positions unpopular with the Republican rank and file such as allowing illegal immigrants to earn citizenship.

Charlie Black, a senior adviser to McCain, said, “McCain is doing very well among those. So even if there are fewer independents (in the GOP primary) than there were eight years ago, we'll win because we'll dominate however many there are.”

William Gardner, New Hampshire's secretary of state, estimated that 150,000 independents would vote today and that overall a turnout of half a million would shatter the record set in the 2000 primary when 396,000 ballots were cast.

Andrew E. Smith, a pollster at the University of New Hampshire, said his samplings indicate that about 60 percent of undeclared voters will ask for a Democratic ballot.


 

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“I think the war in Iraq is the dividing line for the undeclareds. We see that undeclareds are much more like Democrats in their feelings about the war in Iraq,” Smith said. “So, if you don't like the war and you really don't like Bush, you are going to the Democratic primary.”

A number of tables at a major Democratic Party fundraising dinner last week were filled with independents invited there by the Obama campaign, which paid for their tickets.

Russell Ouellette, an independent and a McCain voter in 2000, found himself sitting front and center with other like-minded voters, listening to what he described as a torrent of anti-Republican rhetoric.

“Then Barack Obama got up at the end and says nothing negative,” said Ouellette, 47, a management consultant who plans to vote for the Illinois senator. “He talks about the future – about what he is going to do. That is what independents want to hear. He is paying attention to that.”

While McCain's position on the war has cost him with voters such as Ouellette, the recent decrease in the casualty rate in Iraq has given the Arizona senator a chance to rebuild part of his former independent base.

McCain has also worked hard at casting himself as a legislator more interested in solving problems than scoring partisan points. That was the intended message when he campaigned here last week with Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, the Democratic vice presidential candidate in 2000 and now one of the Senate's two independents.

 

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