- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 29, 2008

ROCHESTER, N.H. | Sen. John McCain, who held more than 100 town-hall meetings in New Hampshire before his surprising win in the January primary, often joked that he spent so much time in the state many people thought he lived here.

But if that’s so, the independent-minded, politically savvy voters of this swing battleground state just may have a new favorite son.

“What we’ve seen in all the polling since springtime is a swing from a McCain lead to an Obama lead,” said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

That swing was dramatic, at least as portrayed by the Rasmussen polling firm. Mr. McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, held a 10-point lead over Sen. Barack Obama at the end of April, but a mid-June poll put the Democrat up by 11 points - a swing of 21 points. A pair of UNH polls have Mr. McCain going from six points up to three points down against his Democratic rival.

“Once again, the swing group is those independents,” Mr. Scala said, “and I don’t think they’re done moving yet.”

Although the small state wields just four votes of the 539 electoral votes up for grabs Nov. 4, Mr. McCain made clear last Tuesday that he plans to make a serious effort to pick them up in the fall.

“This is going to be a battleground state. This will be one of those states that decides who the next president of the United States is, and I need your support,” Mr. McCain said at the Rochester Opera House, where hundreds of supporters drowned him out with cheers.

Trends, however, are all going the other way. Republicans reached a crest in 2002 but have been falling out of power ever since - for the first time in 58 years, Democrats control both state legislative chambers and the governor’s mansion.

Voter registration, too, has tilted heavily toward Mr. Obama. Just after the November 2004 election, there were 267,000 registered Republicans in the state to 228,000 registered Democrats. That gap has been almost erased: Earlier this month, Republicans held just a 5,000-voter edge, at 269,000 to 264,000.

“That’s the number that jumps out at me. Republicans have basically stagnated, and Democrats have made big gains. McCain and Obama both have their strengths, but if you’re looking at which way the political winds are blowing, they’re certainly blowing in Obama’s direction,” said Mr. Scala, a longtime observer of state politics.

“The dilemma for McCain is enthusiasm,” he added.

Far more important are the notoriously fickle “undeclared” voters who align themselves with neither party. More than 330,000 are registered under that label, making them the crucial swing vote each candidate will be seeking.

Those voters are the natural target for Mr. McCain, considered a maverick member of the Republican Party who has often split with the more conservative wing. Mr. McCain spoke often to independents in his town-hall meeting at the opera house, ticking through a slew of issues, from tax cuts to pork-barrel spending to offshore oil drilling to winning the Iraq war.

“We have to drill offshore; we have to do it,” he said, drawing cheers and whistles. “When the president lifted the federal moratorium on offshore drilling, the price went of oil went down $10 a barrel. So, if America can show, as we move into this energy-independent era, that we have significant oil and gas reserves and we don’t have to depend on foreign oil, it will have an effect on the cost of oil.”

Mr. McCain also is eyeing disaffected Democrats such as Bill Condon, a lifelong Democrat who has decided to back the Republican candidate. In Rochester, the UNH biology professor recounted how he first met Mr. McCain last summer, when the campaign was faltering.

“He was positive, bubbly, enthusiastic,” Mr. Condon said. “There were two things he said that day that converted me. The first one was that the federal government had to stop spending money. … Then he said no more spending your money or my money on agricultural subsidies.”

Mr. McCain has several stances that may appeal to other moderate Democrats or centrist independents: He is a fierce foe of pork-barrel spending and supporter of tax cuts and efforts to address global warming. Many residents of the state are concerned about the environment, but the issue cuts both ways, Mr. Scala said.

“Every time he talks about global warming, there’s a moderate Republican or independent who likes to hear that, but there’s also a conservative Republican here who says, ‘Oh no, there goes John McCain again,’” he said.

“The problem for him is that the more he sounds like a Republican, the more he’s going to turn off some of those independent voters. The more he sounds like a maverick, the more he’ll turn off core conservative Republicans,” Mr. Scala said.

Still, Mr. McCain has a wide base in the state and appeals strongly to veterans. A former Navy pilot and prisoner of war, he spent last fall and early winter traversing the state, often dropping in to meet voters in halls of the Veterans of Foreign Wars and American Legion.

“Veterans back John McCain because he always backs us,” said Paul Chevalier, a Marine veteran and co-chairman of New Hampshire Veterans for John McCain along with Air Force veteran Griff Dalianis of Nashua. “McCain’s strong support extends to those who are currently serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. While his opponent has played politics with troop funding, John McCain continues to fight for our servicemen and women while also working to ease their transition back to civilian life.”

New Hampshire has always been an enigma and just as often has been a kingmaker or a deal breaker for presidential aspirants. Republican George W. Bush won the state by one percentage point in 2000 to take the presidency; Democrat John F. Kerry won the state by one point in 2004 but lost to Mr. Bush.

The state crowned Mr. McCain with a 19-point lead in the 2000 primary, but he fell just weeks later after a dismal showing in the South Carolina primary.

Mr. Obama has his own problems this year in New Hampshire. Many state residents are fiercely anti-tax and support small government, which runs counter to Mr. Obama’s proposals so far this campaign. The Illinois Democrat lost in the Jan. 8 primary to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, who exit polls showed appealed more to blue-collar workers.

“Obama’s weakness right now is among working-class voters,” Mr. Scala said. “Cities like Rochester and Manchester are the places Obama lost the primary to Hillary Clinton. Obama’s going to do fine among your Volvo Democrats - I guess you call them Prius Democrats now - suburban, upper-middle-class professionals. But some of the working-class voters in Rochester and Manchester might feel more comfortable with McCain.”

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