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Independents could swing N.H. race

Sunday, October 19, 2003

By Maeve Reston, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- The invasion of the leaf-peepers at this time of year in New Hampshire is an annual event, but for the 2004 Democratic presidential candidates, it's just another sign that the first state primary is only three months away.

Related graphic:

New Hampshire's independent streak

So as the foliage evolves to crimson and gold, it provides an increasingly lovely backdrop for an increasingly pointed and hard-fought battle for the support of Granite State Democrats.

A week of interviews with New Hampshire voters, however, suggests some of the combative, leading candidates might do better by courting the state's growing number of independent voters -- voters with a history of preferring mavericks to party loyalists.

When mild-mannered Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry spoke to students at Plymouth State University in the foothills of the White Mountains the other day, he took a swing at retired Army Gen. Wesley Clark, a newly announced Democrat who threatens Kerry's standing in the race.

"I'm not new to our party three weeks ago, declaring that I want to be president," Kerry said, touting his credentials as a lifelong Democrat. "My vision is not words that come from briefing papers. . . . I'm not new to this battle. I've been fighting for these things for 40 years."

Ever since Clark jumped into the race, Kerry and other leading candidates -- including former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean and Missouri Rep. Richard Gephardt -- have tried to stall his momentum by repeatedly criticizing his late Democratic conversion. They've pointed out that Clark voted for Republican Presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan, and that Clark publicly praised the current Bush administration as recently as 2001.

But in interviews over the past week, voters of every political persuasion said over and over that this argument is unlikely to take hold in New Hampshire, where more people are registered as "undeclared" than as either Democrat or Republican. And these independents, who can vote in either party's presidential primary, are likely to flock to the Democratic contest because no one is challenging President Bush for the Republican nomination.

Even voters who identified themselves as Democrats or Republicans said they take pride in their ability to look beyond party lines in this traditionally anti-tax, anti-regulation state, where the motto is "Live Free or Die" and the law doesn't require adults to wear seat belts. Jack A. Saunders, a Democrat from Holderness, said going after Clark for voting Republican will backfire on candidates like Kerry.

"Look, the first principle of this world is the only thing that is constant is change. Unless you're ready for change, you're dead in the water," said Saunders, a retired jet engine designer who came to hear Kerry speak in Plymouth but is supporting Clark. "I don't care that [Clark] voted Republican. It's what he is going to do now to rescue us that's important. . . . I was always a rebel, I always questioned my managers and my leaders and that's what [Clark] did and I admire that."

That attitude also may explain why so many New Hampshire voters have continued to support Dean, who has maintained a commanding lead in statewide polls despite a steady stream of attacks from Kerry, Gephardt and other candidates for shifting his position on the Social Security retirement age, Medicare and international trade agreements.

"[If a candidate] takes in new information and changes his mind because of the new information or because of the new set of circumstances, only a fool would not change his mind," said Richard T. Sanford, an independent from Nashua, who attended a Clark "meet-up" last week in Manchester. "We think the country is in pretty deep trouble."

Sanford voted for Reform Party candidate H. Ross Perot in the 1990s, Bush in 2000 and now plans to work for a candidate -- for the first time -- by volunteering for Clark. "We do need an outsider who is an independent thinker," he said.

Fertile ground for insurgents

New Hampshire voters have never been shy about bucking party establishment candidates, often in favor of those who cast themselves as Washington outsiders. The emphasis on retail politics in New Hampshire -- knocking on doors, attending neighborhood coffees and holding town hall meetings -- has made the state into the perfect vehicle for insurgent candidates to gain national visibility.

President Harry Truman pulled out of the 1952 race after a humiliating defeat by Tennessee Sen. Estes Kefauver in a low turnout New Hampshire primary. President Lyndon Johnson announced he would not seek re-election in 1968 after Minnesota Sen. Eugene McCarthy nearly defeated him in New Hampshire, exposing the damage done to Johnson's popularity by his conduct of the Vietnam War.

South Dakota Sen. George McGovern established himself as a serious contender in 1972 by exceeding the expectations of the press in a challenge to establishment candidate Sen. Edmund Muskie of Maine. Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter was virtually unknown nationally until he won the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary in 1976.

The surprise victories of Colorado Sen. Gary Hart in the 1984 Democratic primary over Vice President Walter Mondale and of Republican Pat Buchanan in 1996 over Kansas Sen. Bob Dole exposed the weaknesses of the establishment candidates.

In more recent years, the popularity of plain-spoken mavericks such as former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley, who nearly upset Vice President Al Gore in 2000, and Ariz. Sen. John McCain, who stunned the national media by beating Bush in New Hampshire in 2000, spoke volumes about the growing power of independents who had flocked to both the Bradley and McCain campaigns.

Among the independents who cast ballots in the Democratic primary in 2000, 57 percent voted for Bradley and 42 percent for Gore. Sixty-one percent of the undeclared voters casting Republican ballots voted for McCain, according to an analysis by the Survey Center at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Between the 2000 and 2002 elections in New Hampshire, the state's undeclared voters exceeded the number of Republican voters for the first time, with 38 percent of voters designating themselves as undeclared, 37 percent as Republicans and 26 percent as Democrats.

Transplants independent, too

The growing number of independent voters in New Hampshire was fueled by the boom in the state's population during the 1990s. The southern tier of the state along its border with Massachusetts has become a haven for transplants from New York and the rest of New England.

Three-quarters of the state's 1.3 million people now live in that narrow strip of the state, which is within commuting distance of Boston. Young, affluent, college-educated professionals moved here to raise their children in a small town environment. They also were attracted by the absence of sales or income taxes and by New Hampshire's reputation as an excellent incubator for small businesses.

Many of the 1990s transplants registered as undeclared voters, and they tend to be fiscally conservative but moderate on issues such as abortion, gay rights and environmental protection, according to Dean Spiliotes, a visiting scholar at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College in Manchester. They also exhibit the traditional New Hampshire mindset, Spiliotes said, by embracing candidates who are willing to criticize their own parties and who aren't popular with party elites.

"It's a very individualistic outlook," Spiliotes said. "They like insurgents or outsiders, not people that are too closely tied into the party apparatus... Dole was up here [in 1996] and he had every member of the Republican [congressional] delegation escorting him around the state, and Buchanan still won."

David L. Diamond, a software engineer from Mount Vernon, N.H., said the same phenomenon may be decisive in January's Democratic primary -- and that the more candidates criticize Clark for his lack of party ties, the more support they will lose from independent voters.

"That's what's wrong with so many of these Democratic candidates," he said. "It's not about going to the right meetings or the right parties, it's about what do you stand for, what your beliefs are and what you are going to do for our country... [The winner] has to be the president of all the people."

Maeve Reston can be reached .

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