Jump Ball for New Hampshire

By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Friday, June 20, 2008

HANOVER, N.H. -- The race for electoral votes could be so close in November that small states may well pick the next president. Among those diminutive states, New Hampshire is by far the most interesting.

Consider that in 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore here by 7,211 votes (Ralph Nader got just over 22,000). If New Hampshire's four electoral votes had gone the other way, Gore would have won, and Florida would not have mattered.

New Hampshire is also one of only three states that changed sides between 2000 and 2004, and the only one that switched to the Democrats. John Kerry carried it by 9,274 votes out of almost 680,000 cast.

Because the state holds the nation's first primary, voters here have been studying the candidates for well over a year. New Hampshire probably has the highest percentage of citizens who have actually met John McCain and Barack Obama.

Maddeningly, the polls suggest that the vote here this year could be as close as it was in the past two elections. "You're going to see house-to-house combat for these votes," said Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a Democrat.

If John McCain has a political second home, this is it, the place where the Straight Talk Express first rolled. McCain won in a landslide over Bush in the 2000 primary, and he launched his political comeback here this year. "He has experienced rebirth twice in New Hampshire," chuckled Rep. Paul Hodes, a Democrat and an early Obama supporter.

Republicans insist that McCain's special standing gives him a kind of immunity. "The thing Democrats are counting on nationally doesn't work here: They can't turn him into George Bush's third term," said Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist. "New Hampshire looked at George Bush eight years ago and John McCain eight years ago and understood there was a difference."

Rath, who supported Mitt Romney in the Republican primary, learned the depth of the state's easy familiarity with McCain the hard way. The Romney campaign hoped it might turn voters away from McCain by giving them new information about him, Rath said, but discovered that "there was nothing we could tell them that they didn't know."

Compounding the uncertainty, both Hodes and Rath said, is the fact that many independents, who were free to vote in either party's primary, expressed sympathy for both Obama and McCain.

"I spoke to a lot of independent voters who said, 'I'm going to vote for Obama or McCain. I just can't figure it out, I just can't decide,' " said Hodes. "They'd say, 'They're both straight talkers, they both want to bring people together, they're both honest.' "

For many independents, by far the state's largest group of voters, Obama and McCain were, Hodes said, "the dual Straight Talk Express."

Yet Hodes and other Democrats say that Republicans are vastly overestimating the advantages McCain has from his past. As Ray Buckley, the Democratic state chairman pointed out, "The reality is that in January, McCain came in third place." Hillary Clinton received 112,000 votes in the primary, Obama just under 105,000 and McCain 88,000. Overall, many more voters cast ballots in the Democratic primary than in the Republican primary. The Democratic advantage was 287,000 to 239,000.

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