CONCORD, N.H. — Three key facts describe the state of the Republican White House race in New Hampshire as the state prepares for the nation's first presidential primary:
More than two-thirds of Republican voters still are trying to decide who to support.
People desperately want someone who understands and shares their anger and frustration with Washington.
The GOP race is between former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and a player to be named later. Last month, the Romney alternative appeared to be Texas Gov. Rick Perry. Today, it's Georgia businessman Herman Cain.
If that candidate has enough appeal to the state's strong conservative corps of voters — who have long been skeptical about Romney's commitment to their causes — and enough gravitas and money, Romney's in for a major struggle.
New Hampshire will offer the nation clues as to the direction of this volatile race. The state's primary is traditionally the campaign's first secret-ballot presidential test, and voters unaffiliated with a political party can participate.
So just like Republicans across the nation, New Hampshire voters are shopping. They want a winner. They want, as Romney adviser Ron Kaufman put it, "Superman."
Romney has maintained his strong core of support, firmly establishing himself as the establishment choice. He continues to collect high-profile endorsements such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, and announces advisory teams full of officials from the George W. Bush administration.
But it's impossible to say who can galvanize the anti-Romney crowd, and it's still too early the draw such conclusions.
The WMUR Granite State poll, conducted Sept. 26 to Oct. 6, found 68 percent of likely Republican voters were still searching for a candidate, while 11 percent said they had definitely settled on someone.
"It's the same thing we've seen in the past. People don't make up their minds until the very end," said Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the poll.
New Hampshire politics is unique in one sense. Because it's a small state, candidates have time to linger in living rooms and diners and make several stops each day.
For voters, the stops are convenient. They can walk down the street and see a candidate, or bump into them while having dinner out. Knowing they have such access means they're reluctant to commit to anyone this soon.
"In this state, you have to play this game until the very end," said veteran Republican strategist Tom Rath, a Romney backer. "Leads can evaporate overnight."
Romney is ahead because in many ways, a lot of people feel they know him well and like him. He has a home in Wolfeboro, governed the state next door for four years, and has been running for president since 2007. In the Granite State poll, 67 percent viewed him favorably.
While it's natural that people are still candidate-shopping, "in the back of their minds, a lot of people have a space reserved for Mitt Romney," said Robert Duffy, a Romney supporter from Nashua.
Yet Romney hasn't been able to gain much more than 40 percent support in statewide polls. In every town, it seems, are lots of folks out of work, or worried about their jobs or retirement, or uneasy with big government. They're from all over the political spectrum, and they're searching.
Everyone has well-honed ways of judging candidates. Anna Greenlaw, a Stratham retiree, laughs, "I wish I could take a little bit of each of them." Texas Gov. Rick Perry, she said, has a "gestalt," or presence, she likes, while Romney is "a very steady guy."
Chris Bunker, a Brookline woodworker, thinks he has the answer to big government: "The only way we're going to right the ship is to bring in someone from the outside," he figured, so he's looking at Georgia businessman Herman Cain, who has surged into first or second place in recent national polls.
Howard Nelson, a Washington, N.H., retiree active in the conservative tea party movement, was Romney's town chairman in 2008. Not this time; he prefers Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann.
In 2008, Nelson said, Romney was "against almost everything (Arizona Sen. John) McCain (the eventual 2008 GOP nominee) stood for," Nelson said. "Then when McCain got the nomination, Romney flipped and supported him and most of his positions."
Ed Thomas, a Marlow photographer, said all the Republicans would make good presidents, so he'll "end up with the consensus." Matthew Saxton, an Alstead furniture maker, is open to nearly everyone, though he has concerns about Romney.
"He appears to have no center, nothing he really believes in," Saxton said.
Tom Ploszaj of Grafton, who is unemployed, mutually agreed with his employer to leave his analytical research job six years ago as a protest against American involvement in Iraq. He didn't want to pay taxes to support the war.
"I want to bring the troops home, audit the Fed (Federal Reserve Board) and basically have us follow the Constitution," he said, though he admits, "in my lifetime those things probably won't happen." Though a Democrat, he likes Texas Rep. Ron Paul.
There's no easy way to predict how or when voters will sort out all these disparate thoughts.
What people may want, said Phyllis Woods, state Republican National Committeewoman, is a combination of the cerebral and the inspirational — in many ways, she said, a combination of Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
"Gingrich is one of the best people we have who can really zero in on a problem," she said. Cain, on the other hand, "has the vision," she said.
But Cain, despite his recent poll surge, is still largely unknown and politically untested.
"He doesn't have a record we can look at," said Jane Aitken, an organizer for the New Hampshire Tea Party Coalition.
So the search goes on, unlikely to end until hours before voters go to the polls, expected to happen in December or early January. Just like the political world takes the New Hampshire primary seriously, the voters do too.
"The most important political possession we have is our privacy," said Rath, "and people here want to develop a level of comfort with their candidate."
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