Independents in N.H. hold primary power

McCain, Gore cling to slim leads in vote that's too close to call

February 01, 2000|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

BEDFORD, N.H. -- Vice President Al Gore and Sen. John McCain are slight favorites going into today's New Hampshire primary, with independent voters holding the balance of power in this famously independent-minded state.

An aggressive closing drive by Gore's Democratic challenger, Bill Bradley, and support among registered Republicans for front-running Gov. George W. Bush of Texas have left the final result in doubt, politicians and analysts say.

"It's still too close," says Andrew E. Smith of the University of New Hampshire's survey research center.

"I don't think we can predict the outcome with any degree of certainty."

Tonight's returns will set the course of the presidential race in both parties for weeks to come.

If either Gore or Bush should emerge with a strong victory, he could be all but impossible to stop as the candidates head toward a big round of primaries March 7.

The leading challengers, Bradley and McCain, plan to continue their campaigns, regardless of the result.

But at least one Republican candidate, Gary L. Bauer, might exit soon.

In a visual metaphor for his last-place candidacy, Bauer toppled backward off the stage during a pancake-flipping contest in Manchester, N.H.

He quickly re-emerged, red-faced and unhurt, gamely waving his spatula.

A University of New Hampshire poll, released last night, showed Gore running 6 points ahead of Bradley, who has made a late charge after falling far back last week.

"Tomorrow it happens," Bradley told voters in Nashua yesterday.

"I hope independent-minded people in New Hampshire will send a message to this country that the old politics are over and the new politics have arrived."

Among Republicans, McCain, the Arizona senator who has staked his long-shot hopes on winning New Hampshire, held a 6-point lead over Bush.

Speaking to about 100 people in Keene yesterday, McCain said: "We're going to give the government back to the people. We're going to take it out of the special interests and big-money people and give it back to you. We're going to reform the system."

Relatively mild midwinter weather is forecast across the Granite State today. A weekend storm that moved up the coast Sunday night dumped as much as 8 inches of snow early yesterday.

Record turnout expected

Election officials are predicting a record turnout by independents, who now outnumber both Republicans and Democrats statewide.

On Election Day, independents can choose either a Republican or Democratic ballot.

If independents vote in substantial numbers, it would be good news for McCain, who leads Bush by better than 2-to-1 among such voters.

Bradley and McCain, who have offered similar reform-minded messages, are battling for the allegiance of a small group of voters who could go either way in today's election.

Surveys show that most of these insurgent voters are moving to McCain. But if they decide to back Bradley, it could make the Democratic contest very tight.

Interviews with voters over the past week suggest that New Hampshire is as conscious as ever of its privileged place in the political system. A small but potentially decisive number plan to cast what Dick Bennett, an independent analyst in Manchester, N.H., calls "strategic votes."

For example, some of those torn between McCain and Bradley said they might vote for Bradley because he appears to need their help more now than McCain does.

At the same time, some independents who lean Republican -- and say Bush would be an acceptable nominee -- said they will support McCain in order to keep the Republican race from ending here.

"I'm going to vote for McCain simply because I want him to stay in the race a while longer," says Teresa Troy, a graphic designer in Nottingham, N.H.

In Bush's favor

Even so, some of the Texas governor's supporters predicted he will fare better than the polls suggest, because Republicans are more likely than independents to turn out to vote.

"Now that it comes down to turnout, I think we probably have the easier task," said Gov. Paul Cellucci of Massachusetts, campaigning for Bush. "McCain has a bigger challenge because independents have to decide between McCain and Bradley."

Public polls taken in the days leading up to today's vote have varied widely, especially in the Republican contest. Several surveys show McCain and Bush in a statistical tie; one of them has Bush in the lead.

One reason for the variation, pollsters say, is the difficulty in estimating the size of the independent turnout. Another is the notoriously fluid nature of the state's electorate, which often tends to change sides at the last minute and delights in confounding predictions.

Perhaps the biggest reason why no clear trends have developed is a lack of major differences between the leading candidates in both parties, says Andrew Kohut, an independent pollster.

"This is not an easy choice for the voters," says Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center.

"It's not an easy choice between Bradley and Gore, and it's not an easy choice between the two Republicans, either."

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