NH Independents Moving to Democrats

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MERRIMACK Trisha Swonger, part of the remarkable 43 percent of New Hampshire voters who call themselves independents, remembers the balloons and euphoria in 2000 when her man, John McCain, won the state's leadoff Republican primary.

He'd better not be counting on her this year.

In fact, come primary day, the Republicans shouldn't be counting on very many of the independents at all.

In 2000, Swonger joined McCain and other supporters in a hotel ballroom cheering his big New Hampshire victory over George W. Bush. But times have changed.

"The John McCain who is running this time is not the John McCain I supported in 2000," Swonger said, standing outside a house party for her current candidate, Democratic Sen. Barack Obama. "I don't want anything to do with this guy."

Or his party. "Undeclareds," as independents are called in New Hampshire, are congregating around the Democratic race.

Four out of 10 say they plan to vote in the Democratic primary, and about the same number say they aren't sure which ballot they will pick up on primary day. Only 19 percent are planning to vote in the Republican primary, according to a recent poll by Saint Anselm College's Institute of Politics.

In contrast, undeclareds in 2000 broke heavily for Republicans 62 percent to 38 percent thanks to keen interest in the Bush-McCain race and the lackluster campaigns of Al Gore and Bill Bradley.

The 43 percent of voters who register as "undeclared" in New Hampshire outnumber both Republicans, 31 percent, and Democrats, 26 percent. They helped produce McCain's 2000 upset, though the Arizona senator also won among Republicans.

"I go with the person each time I think will make the best judgment call," said Maria D. Wilson, a stay-at-home mother of two who hasn't yet picked a candidate. "It's a very exciting time to be an American, with the sense of change going on. ... I think people are ready for a change and to shake it up. Independents, right now, are very interested in Democrats."

More than any other Democrat, they're interested in Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

Obama has seen a 17 percentage-point lead over Clinton among independents in July turn into a 2-point deficit in the most recent University of New Hampshire poll.

"People are looking at electability," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. "It's the fresh, young face versus the old-machine candidate."

If there's good news for Obama, McCain and others, it's the fluidity of the independent voters, who tend to tune in late to campaigns.

They also dislike partisanship, which buoyed Obama early based on his anti-Washington message. It also has helped former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, the Republican who is known for moderate positions on social issues.

McCain likes it that independents typically decide late.

"History doesn't repeat itself. But it was literally in the last 48 hours of the 2000 campaign that the independents all stampeded our way," he said after a campaign stop in Hampton.

McCain also hopes for some strategic voting if Clinton continues to dominate the Democratic contest.

"If (independent voters) think that the Democrat side is over and right now a lot of people are saying that ... then I think they're going to go where they think they can make a difference," McCain said.

Mary Jean Scholl of Seabrook is the kind of independent McCain is after.

"I vote Democrat or I vote Republican. It just depends on the individual," she said.

Scholl supported McCain in 2000 and will again if he wins the GOP nomination. But she doesn't know whether she'll choose a Republican primary ballot this time.

McCain's backing for the unpopular war in Iraq and his leadership on failed immigration overhaul have cost him support among New Hampshire independents. Chuck Navin, an independent from Hampton, confronted McCain on both issues during a recent town hall-style meeting.

"In 2000, he was my candidate," Navin said. "I considered working on his campaign this year. But I've been not totally convinced of his position on Iraq and I am totally opposed to his position up until today, anyway on illegal immigrants."

Navin now is looking to Giuliani. Or Romney. Or maybe McCain after all.