Democratic candidates swarm to court the voters on the fence

Polls find 25% uncertain

2 of 5 who have picked say they still may switch

Election 2004

January 25, 2004|By Julie Hirschfeld Davis | Julie Hirschfeld Davis,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

CLAREMONT, N.H. - She watched. She waited. She read up. And now, just days before primary day, Cheryl Hayes is finally getting around to deciding whom to vote for in Tuesday's Democratic primary here.

But she won't be rushed.

"I leave it open until right before - and I mean right before," Hayes, 50, of Charlestown, said while waiting for Howard Dean to show up at the opera house that doubles as this town's city hall. "That's why I'm here."

In the final days before the primary, as many as one in four New Hampshire voters, like Hayes, has yet to decide on a candidate, polls show. And according to a Los Angeles Times poll conducted between Tuesday and Friday, nearly two-fifths of those who have chosen a candidate say they could change their minds. That injects another element of uncertainty into a volatile primary - a wild-card factor that could amount to the margin of victory or defeat for the top contenders.

The campaigns are scrambling to reach these wavering voters, through mail, phone calls and door-knocking, hoping they can close the deal with enough of them to boost their chances.

They are also vying for the attention and backing of registered independents, who outnumber either Republicans or Democrats in this state and are free to vote in Tuesday's Democratic primary.

By definition, voters who have held out this long as candidates have clogged their streets, community centers and restaurants for the better part of a year are hard to persuade. And in New Hampshire, where residents jealously guard their prerogative as the first in the nation to vote in a direct primary, most people are not easily won over.

"New Hampshire voters, in a presidential primary, want to make sure that they do the right thing," said Kathy Sullivan, chairman of the state Democratic Party, who said she, too, has yet to decide how to vote. "They know their vote really counts, and they take that very seriously."

"Throw in this other factor, which is this real strong desire to find the right person to defeat George Bush, and you have a lot of things to consider."

Courting the undecided

For now, with Sen. John Kerry ahead in the polls, his main competitors - Dean, retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark and Sens. John Edwards and Joseph I. Lieberman - are counting on support from undecided voters to turn the tide in their favor.

The Los Angeles Times poll found that about one in nine voters remains undecided, though many others say they could switch their allegiance. But in a tracking poll conducted Jan. 21-22 by the Suffolk University Political Research Center that showed Kerry in first place, undecided voters accounted for 26 percent - a figure that pollster David Paleologos said was larger than usual at this stage, even for New Hampshire.

"The numbers will probably close to somebody's benefit," Paleologos said. "If they break [down] evenly, that helps Kerry. If they don't, someone has the chance for another momentum shift, and that could be dramatic."

Undecided voters are hard to pin down. This is true not just because they take their time weighing their options, but also because of New Hampshire's quirky primary registration rules: Independent voters can walk into a polling place and vote in either party's primary. That makes it difficult to predict who will vote in the primary and for whom.

Independents account for 37 percent of New Hampshire voters, outnumbering Republicans, who make up slightly more than one-third, and Democrats, just under one-third. Especially in this state, independents are famous for bucking conventional wisdom, as they proved in 2000 when John McCain trounced George W. Bush in New Hampshire's Republican primary.

Kerry has "had four days in a row of a run-up, and there still are 26 percent undecided, so they're still pulling back and looking to see if there will be some definitive event or ad or statement that's going to change their minds," Paleologos said. Sue Casey, Kerry's senior adviser for New Hampshire, said the campaign lives in fear of a late swing of wavering voters toward another candidate: "We know what it's like here, and we're scared to death because every day, people are making up their minds, and they could go any way."

Casey estimated that the proportion of voters who either are undecided or could change their minds is as high as two-thirds.

"We feel like the vast majority of voters are wide open, and they don't know what they're going to do ... Tuesday," she said.

Indeed, some of them say they are only now tuning in to the Democratic race.

"I always wait until the very end to decide - everyone in New Hampshire does," Kurt Kozyra, a 40-year-old independent, said the other day as he browsed the shops at Manchester's Mall of New Hampshire. "It's like when you have a boyfriend or girlfriend, the more you see of them and the more you get to know them, the clearer things get. But you don't want to move too fast."

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