With only 4 electoral votes, N.H. emerges as battleground in presidential race

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CONCORD, N.H. -- Long after the crush of the nation's leadoff presidential primary, supporters of President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney are pushing hard in a state that has emerged as the battleground of New England.

From recruiting Romney volunteers at NASCAR events to promoting the president's education policies through the TV personality Bill Nye the Science Guy, the campaigns are treating New Hampshire as though it could make a difference in November. Mr. Romney has adopted the state as another home base, launching his campaign here and spending time at his vacation house on Lake Winnipesaukee, while Mr. Obama, who won all 10 counties in 2008, has sent multiple surrogates, with a visit by the first lady planned for early next month.

When asked about the investment of man-hours and advertising dollars in a state with only four of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, advisers to both campaigns here point to the 2000 election. George W. Bush won the presidency after weeks of uncertainty and a Supreme Court decision -- and after winning New Hampshire by a narrow margin. Democrats point to the fact that third-party candidate Ralph Nader received more than 22,000 votes that year in New Hampshire, more than three times Mr. Bush's margin of victory in the state.

"All of a sudden, people started to realize those four electoral votes, in a very close election, can be the deciding four electorals," said Jim Demers, a member of Mr. Obama's New Hampshire steering committee and co-chairman of his 2008 campaign in the state. "That was the beginning. There is no doubt in my mind that if the Gore campaign had had an aggressive effort and targeted New Hampshire, most of those Ralph Nader votes would have gone to Al Gore, and it would have made the difference. He would have been the president."

While the other New England states have become solidly Democratic in presidential elections, New Hampshire has evolved from a Yankee Republican past into a state both parties consider winnable. Bill Clinton carried the state twice, and after that first election for Mr. Bush, New Hampshire went for John Kerry in 2004. Party registration here is nearly even, but the Democratic and Republican voter rolls are exceeded by the portion of undeclared voters, who can take a ballot in either party's primary.

The race in New Hampshire is close and tightening. A poll released last week by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center showed 49 percent of likely voters choosing Mr. Obama and 45 percent backing Mr. Romney, halving the 9-point lead the president enjoyed in an April UNH survey. The more recent poll showed independent voters splitting evenly, with 41 percent supporting Mr. Romney and 40 percent Mr. Obama.

On each side, some advisers were willing to predict a win for their candidate, while others hesitated. Ned Helms, a member of Mr. Obama's steering committee, said he believes New Hampshire voters will view the election as a choice between moving forward or backward.

"I'm optimistic about our chances, but I don't think there's a person in the campaign who isn't conscious of the fact that if we let up for a second we could lose," he said.

Jim Merrill, senior adviser to Mr. Romney in the state, said he is confident the campaign's economic message will resonate in a state with a traditional focus on fiscal issues, and even with the state's relatively low unemployment rate, 5.1 percent in June, he expects a narrow win.

"I think it's going to be a photo finish," he said.

Ground game

The Romney campaign began its week at the races, as a small group of volunteers spent last Sunday morning seeking supporters at a NASCAR event in Loudon, a town near Concord, where spectators can reach the track along dirt roads that pass grazing horses and a sign for maple syrup. Wearing blue campaign shirts, they approached people to ask if Mr. Romney has their support. At times it was slow going -- some folks preferred Mr. Obama, some didn't care for politics and some were from Canada.

But by the time the race began, the volunteers had several pages of contact information for supporters from New Hampshire and beyond. A few names were won when Tommy Schultz, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee's state effort on behalf of the campaign, agreed to hand his Romney shirt over to a supporter who promised his own information and that of relatives. The 23-year-old, who grew up on a kiwi farm in California and recently arrived in New Hampshire, finished the recruiting session in a sleeveless shirt emblazoned with the state's "Live Free or Die" motto.

A day later, supporters of Mr. Obama gathered over a potluck supper in Merrimack, a town between the cities of Manchester and Nashua, to discuss reconnecting with like-minded voters and winning over independents. They heard about a garden party for women supporters and an upcoming phone bank, and prepared to receive training in the campaign's online organizing tool. As women chatted around a table laden with desserts, hostess Teresa Mendoza confided that she thinks the campaign could better articulate its case to voters who could go either way.

"I think the Democratic Party needs to reach out to the independents and emphasize the real and the positive things Obama has done," she said. "I think he's been very modest in the things that are a real boon to everybody."

Throughout the week, the campaign emphasized the president's policies for K-12 education. On one day, it ushered teachers from Massachusetts and New Hampshire around the state on a school bus in support of Mr. Obama. On another, the campaign brought Mr. Nye and U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J. and a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee, to tour three science museums. Standing beside a tidal pool touch tank, where a museum worker held aloft a lobster, Mr. Nye spoke of the importance of education funding.

"I strongly believe that we need to continue to fund education, especially science education, and I especially believe in research and development," he said. "We will find sources of energy beyond what we can imagine right now."

After a primary season in which Mr. Romney made himself at home in New Hampshire, he has returned for several campaign stops as well as respite at his home in Wolfeboro. On Friday, Mr. Romney arrived at a lumberyard in Bow, a town next to Concord, for an event with U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, the New Hampshire Republican whose name has been mentioned in the speculation over Mr. Romney's vice presidential choice. But because of the mass shooting earlier that day at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., Mr. Romney set aside his stump speech for a brief and somber call to unity and prayer.

The undeclareds

Though about 40 percent of New Hampshire voters are registered as neither Republicans nor Democrats, only some are really up for grabs. Andy Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center, said voters who register as undeclared mostly align with one party or the other, though some may be more persuadable because they pay less attention to politics.

"Most people in America are either Republicans or Democrats, and they vote that way all of the time," he said. "The myth in New Hampshire is the independent voter up here."

For much of the 20th century, the state went Republican in presidential elections, but Mr. Smith said its political makeup has shifted as an older generation was replaced with new residents who more often were Democrats. The state has seen drastic shifts in recent elections, with Republicans in 2010 winning huge legislative majorities, including nearly 300 of 400 House seats, after four years of Democratic control.

Despite the advances by Democrats, the state retains its hallmarks of government frugality: It collects neither a personal income tax nor a broad-based sales tax, and a tolerance for either levy is an early question to candidates for governor. The state's moderate -- at times libertarian -- attitude toward social issues was seen this spring, when legislators declined to repeal the state law allowing same-sex marriage.

Of the undeclared voters who do vote for either party, some have made their decisions in the current contest. Mark Pingree, a 60-year-old who is semi-retired from a career mostly in manufacturing, said he voted for Mr. Obama in 2008 but is likely to support Mr. Romney this fall. Mr. Pingree, who lives in Londonderry, believes the president has done too little to improve the economy, though he has no special fondness for the Republican.

"I love politics, but politicians I don't care for," Mr. Pingree said. "There's nothing about him in particular I like, but I think he might do a good job with the economy."

Tiffany Knapp and Elisabeth Herber, 22-year-old recent college graduates and undeclared voters from Derry, both said they voted for John McCain in 2008 but plan to support Mr. Obama in November. The friends said they became more liberal during college, and they want a president who supports abortion rights and access to birth control.

Ms. Knapp, who is about to start law school, said she also believes Mr. Romney's wealth prevents him from relating to ordinary people.

"He just doesn't understand what it means for normal people to have debt. He doesn't really get that because it hasn't been on his mind ever," she said, drawing contrast with the student loans used by Mr. and Mrs. Obama.

Other voters, like Robin Loomis, a 65-year-old Concord resident, tend to vote for one party but prefer to keep their registration undeclared. Ms. Loomis, a conservative, supports Mr. Romney because of his business experience.

"I prefer to be an independent so I don't have to be stuck with one party," she said.

Voters' choices

Political advisers in New Hampshire argue the care and knowledge voters bring to their quadrennial presidential primary, and their expectation of attention from the candidates, equips them well to serve as one of a few state electorates that could decide the election.

Tom Rath, a former state attorney general who is an adviser to Mr. Romney, said New Hampshire is his candidate's best chance to pick up votes to the north and east of Pennsylvania and Ohio -- and close enough to the Atlantic that West Coast voters heading to the polls could learn Mr. Romney had flipped a state once won by the president.

In an election that could be won by a small number of electoral votes, Mr. Rath said the state's voters can be trusted to choose wisely. "We've really become one of the genuine uncertainties on the map, and I think that's good," he said. "This is an electorate that pays attention, meets these people, makes judgments that I think are very sophisticated. ... We could do worse than being in the hands of New Hampshire."


Karen Langley: klangley@post-gazette.com or 717-787-2141


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