By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 16, 2008
DOVER, N.H., Oct. 15 -- GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin made a straightforward plea to New Hampshire voters Wednesday: resuscitate John McCain's campaign for the presidency the way they have twice in the past.
In three rallies during her first trip to the Granite State, Palin praised residents for their love of hunting, their aversion to federal taxes and spending, and their fall foliage.
"You know best, you know more than government knows. And John McCain and I trust you," she told a crowd of 1,300 gathered on a high school basketball court. "Please do what you did for him in the primary. Help us send John McCain to the White House."
The McCain campaign is hoping to offset potential losses in states that have been traditional GOP strongholds by capturing New Hampshire's four electoral votes, along with at least one electoral vote from nearby Maine, which allocates two of its four votes by congressional districts. On Thursday, Palin will head to Bangor, the heart of Maine's more conservative 2nd District.
But while Palin's events attracted enthusiastic backers -- several of whom said they had been reluctant to support McCain until she became his running mate -- even some of McCain's advisers acknowledge that the GOP ticket is trailing Democratic Sen. Barack Obama in a state that handed McCain critical victories in the 2000 and 2008 Republican primaries. New Hampshire's voters have switched their allegiances over the past two presidential elections, backing Republican George W. Bush in 2000 but supporting Democratic Sen. John F. Kerry four years ago. Maine voted Democratic in 2000 and 2004, though Republicans have come close to winning the second congressional district.
Steve Duprey, a McCain adviser and past chairman of the state GOP, estimated in an interview that the campaign was "about five points down in New Hampshire" but would come back by Election Day.
"Ultimately, New Hampshire knows McCain like no other state," Duprey said, adding that Palin could help win over independents, the largest single voting bloc in the state. "The independents in New Hampshire are fundamentally conservative."
But recent polling suggests that New Hampshire's independents -- who are technically "undeclared" and make up at least 44 percent of the electorate -- are increasingly voting Democratic. Andrew Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, estimates that 45 percent of the state's undeclared voters "are consistently Democratic, and only 30 percent are Republican." Moreover, Smith and two colleagues issued a report Wednesday showing that nearly a third of New Hampshire's potential voters next month have become eligible to vote in the past eight years, and they tend to be Democratic.
"The state has been trending more Democratic in the last eight years -- really, in the last 15 years," Smith said.
Palin and her husband, Todd -- who not only spent the weekend in New Hampshire and Maine but campaigned on his own on Wednesday in Berlin and Littleton, N.H. -- are working hard to highlight the similarities between their rural home state of Alaska and New England.
"We all love good moose hunting. I know that we appreciate our lands, the clean water and the fresh water and the abundant wildlife," Palin told the audience in Dover, noting that she was impressed by New Hampshire's natural beauty. "God has so blessed this state. The foliage, absolutely breathtaking. You're so blessed to live here."
Several voters from New Hampshire and Maine who turned out to hear Palin speak said they appreciated the way she identifies with ordinary Americans and challenges the GOP establishment.
"It's about time we brought the people back into the party," said Donna Rattee, a Republican real estate broker from Stratham, N.H., who was not planning to support McCain until he picked Palin.
Deborah Westcot, a Republican from Kennebunk, Maine, said Palin's selection put her "over the top" because she likes her executive experience and "the fact that she took on her own party. That's a gutsy thing to do."
New Hampshire GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen -- who said Republicans "have slipped a bit" in the past few weeks because of the economic downturn -- argued that the kind of reform message Palin is touting represents the party's best shot at winning in New England.
"I'd like to see them bet the farm on a reform agenda and reform message for the remaining three weeks of the campaign," he said. "The focus on the economy has not been a net positive."
But Dartmouth College government professor Linda Fowler said that voters will ultimately base their decisions on how they view McCain, and that his image has suffered here in recent months. "It isn't a good sign that he has to fight so hard here," she said in an interview. "The tone of the McCain-Palin campaign has not been helpful in attracting independents in the state. . . . This is not the same John McCain that really engaged in the state."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling in Washington contributed to this report.