MANCHESTER, N.H. — The voters of New Hampshire, fiercely independent and, right now, mostly undecided, don’t much care what happened last night in the Iowa caucuses, and they often flaunt their independence at the ballot box.
Only twice since 1976 has the same Democrat won both Iowa and New Hampshire in a contested nominating campaign; no Republican candidate ever won both. And more often than not, the winners of the Iowa caucuses — not the New Hampshire primary — went on to win their party’s nomination.
“New Hampshire Republicans often offer a contrary voice to that of Iowa Republicans,” said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
Sen. John McCain of Arizona knows that fact only too well: He lost Iowa to Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000, then won the Granite State by 19 points, thanks in large part to independent voters. But two weeks later, he got crushed in South Carolina and disappeared from the Republican field.
With just five days to go before the primary, only a third of likely Republican voters and 42 percent of likely Democratic voters say they have picked a candidate. And because undeclared New Hampshire voters can vote in whichever primary they choose, no one really has any idea how they’ll vote this time.
“How can you know which party they’re going to vote in when they themselves are saying they’re not sure which party they’re going to vote in,” Mr. McCain said with a laugh after a campaign event Wednesday in Pembroke, N.H. “There are more scenarios being discussed than I’ve ever seen before.”
But last night, after the Iowa results had shown a win for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, Mr. McCain spoke to a rally in New Hampshire and drew a lesson from there that he said would resonate here.
“One, you can’t buy an election in Iowa. Two, negative campaigns don’t work there and they don’t work here in New Hampshire,” he told his cheering supporters, echoing criticisms of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney that Mr. Huckabee had made in Iowa.
On the Democratic side, at least recently, the New Hampshire primary, which rose to national prominence in 1952, has tended to confirm what Iowa has done. Sen. John Kerry won both contests on 2004, as did former Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Both won the nomination; both went on to lose the general election.
The one-two punch of Iowa and New Hampshire presents two very different sets of hoops for candidates to jump through. Iowa tends to push the Democratic candidates to the left and the Republican hopefuls to the right. New Hampshire Democrats, on the other hand, are less liberal, more libertarian, and the state’s Republicans are politically moderate, more likely to support homosexual “marriage” and abortion rights.
But unlike Iowa, New Hampshire is full of independent voters, and many of them will wait until the last minute to pick their candidate. Take Mary Sullivan of Deering: Two weeks ago, she attended a McCain event but said she was wavering between Mr. McCain and Sen. Barack Obama, Illinois Democrat.
Yesterday, she said “I’m still undecided.” Asked whether the outcome of Iowa will play a factor in her decision, she said: “It might, I’m not sure. I’m just not sure.”
With about 40 percent undeclared, the undecided factor looms large. Currently, 63 percent of undecided voters plan to participate in the Democratic primary, according to a CNN-WMUR poll released this week by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. Among undeclared voters who say they will vote in the Republican primary, 36 percent say they plan to vote for Mr. McCain.
The statewide polls have been in flux for weeks: Mr. Obama has nearly caught Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, closing a months-long double-digit gap in the Democratic contest. Mr. McCain has also rallied to pull even with Mr. Romney in the Republican race, who has led by a large margin for months in New Hampshire, though he had done the same in Iowa until several weeks ago.
Mr. Romney is among the most vulnerable. Because he lost in Iowa, where he spent millions, if he lost again in New Hampshire to a surging Mr. McCain — who pulled in 61 percent of the vote from the undeclared in the 2000 Republican primary — he will be in trouble.And if Mr. Huckabee gets a bounce from his Iowa win and pushes his way into second place, “that means Romney can go home,” Mr. Scala said.