When Monica Cornelia moved from New York City a few years ago and registered to vote for the first time in the New Hampshire coastal community of North Hampton, she declined to identify herself as a Republican or Democrat. "I had had enough of party politics," she said the other day. "I wanted to focus on the individual."

In the state whose motto is "Live Free or Die," Cornelia was hardly unusual in declaring her independence of any party label. Secretary of State William Gardner says eight out of 10 new registrants in recent years have chosen to be "undeclared" in their political preference.

As a result, Gardner announced this month that for the first time in history, there are now more "undeclareds" or independents than Republicans in this state. The trend has been dramatic. Since 1990, the number of registered Democrats has grown by only 5,000, to 197,816. Republican ranks have increased by 12,000, to 265,679. But the independents have grown by 62,000, to 274,927.

Because New Hampshire allows independents to decide on primary day to ask for either a GOP or a Democratic ballot, the swollen ranks of "undeclareds" could be--at least in theory--a huge wild card in the first presidential primary of 2000.

Whether it actually will be a decisive factor in the Feb. 1 voting is a much more dubious proposition, however. Survey research on the independents backs the judgment of most of the presidential campaigns here that their influence may be exaggerated. In particular, there is skepticism about the media supposition that Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain are vying with each other in a tug-of-war for independents that could decide the outcome of the two party primaries.

Official figures show that 64,171 independents voted in the 1996 presidential primary--about one out of three of those then registered. This time, Gardner predicts, with the pool of independents substantially larger and hot contests in both parties, the total may reach 100,000.

Gardner, considered the leading authority on the New Hampshire electorate, says the upsurge in newly registered independents has altered the politics of this state as dramatically as the Voting Rights Act and the development of a competitive Republican Party changed the face of politics in the South between 1960 and 1980. "These people look on the parties as part of government," he said, "and they are hostile to being branded."

Ross Perot, running without a party label in the 1992 general election, received 22 percent of the votes in New Hampshire--well above his national showing of 19 percent.

All this suggests a combination of potency and volatility that could make the "undeclareds" a real swing vote in the primary. But there are limiting factors.

Historically, independents have turned out for the presidential primary at much lower rates than declared partisans. Because of the national importance their first-in-the-nation contest has gained, about seven out of 10 registered Republicans and Democrats show up to vote in years where their party has a choice for the nomination. The typical turnout among independents has been half as large.

Moreover, the term "undeclareds" blurs some important distinctions. A September poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center found that the overwhelming majority of "undeclared" voters describe themselves as having clear partisan leanings. "Only 20 percent of them are true independents, without any leaning to the Democrats or Republicans," said Andrew Smith, the center's director. "The other 80 percent express clear preference for the Democrats or Republicans--and they split almost evenly."

By Smith's calculation, only about 5 percent of the overall electorate are truly independents--and they are the least likely to participate in the primary.

Still, the potential of 100,000 "undeclared" voters showing up on Feb. 1 is a reality no campaign can afford to ignore. Almost all the major campaigns have included the households with "undeclared" voters in their phone and foot canvasses.

Most of the campaigns have bought or built voter files that include information showing which of the current "undeclareds" voted in the GOP or Democratic primaries in 1992 and 1996. This is vital data, because since 1994, New Hampshire has allowed people to register at the polling place--or change their registration right there.

In the 1996 presidential primary, for example, 26,655 people registered to vote that day, and 40,097 of the 64,171 "undeclareds" who asked for Republican or Democratic ballots immediately reverted to their former status before they left the polling place. (By contrast, registered Democrats or Republicans who wish to re-register in the other party must do so weeks in advance of the primary.)

Campaign managers generally say they are not tailoring special messages to the independents. It is easy to assume that McCain and Bradley have the inside track on independent support because they present themselves as reform-minded insurgents, challenging George W. Bush and Vice President Gore, who have much more establishment backing in the GOP and Democratic primaries.

But the evidence is shaky. Bush and Gore both are making intensive outreach to high-tech workers, who have flooded into the state and make up a significant portion of the new "undeclared" registrants. Those registrants are mainly young, and Bush strategists point to polls showing the Texas governor defeating McCain handily among younger voters, while McCain's advantage lies mostly with voters closer to his own age.

As for the notion that Bradley and McCain are competing with each other for the independent vote, neither the two candidates nor their managers are comfortable with the idea.

"Some say that, but I haven't seen a lot of concrete evidence of it," McCain remarked the other day. "The struggle is between McCain and Bush, not McCain and Bradley," said McCain's manager, Mike Dennehy.

Similarly, Bradley said in an interview, "I'm running against Gore, which means I'm going not only for independents but for Democratic constituencies as well. And one of the things about independents is that you never tell people what you think they're going to do, because that offends their sense of independence."

Mark Longabaugh, Bradley's New Hampshire manager, went further. "In many ways," he said, "McCain and Bradley reinforce each other. They have set a tone for the primary and an issue agenda--emphasizing campaign finance reform and personal character--that benefits both of them."

Declaring Nonallegiance

The number of New Hampshire independent voters is growing.

Registered voters in New Hampshire

1980

522,751

Undeclared 27%

Republican 40%

Democrat 33%

1990

658,716

Undeclared 32%

Republican 39%

Democrat 29%

1998

747,608

Undeclared 36%

Republican 37%

Democrat 27%

1999

738,422

Undeclared 37%

Republican 36%

Democrat 27%

SOURCE: New Hampshire Secretary of State