HUDSON, N.H. — Janet Richardson is a middle-class health care worker, a mom and a political kingmaker. Why the clout? She's an undeclared voter in New Hampshire, and she and voters like her probably will decide who wins that state's presidential primaries on Tuesday.
"I really am not a party person," Richardson said. "I lean toward personalities. I gave up the party affiliation a long time ago."
Voters like Richardson are the biggest bloc in New Hampshire politics: Of 830,000 registered voters in the state, 45 percent are "undeclared," neither Republicans nor Democrats. These independents can vote in either party's presidential primary.
Facing close races in their respective parties, Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain both are counting on a big boost from the 150,000 undeclared voters who Secretary of State William Gardner predicted will to go to the polls on Tuesday. Gardner said that about 90,000 of them will be among the 260,000 expected voters in the Democratic primary and about 60,000 will be among the 240,000 voters who participate in the GOP primary.
A suspicion of the status quo and an intense attraction to what they perceive as authenticity make such voters wary of declaring party affiliations, no matter which way they lean.
Crystal Gotham, 18, is deciding between Obama and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, despite the vast philosophical gulf between the two: "They seem like really great guys. ...They're not like standard presidential candidates. They seem like really normal people."
"Independents are the most outspoken about the need for change in Washington," said Mike Dennehy, McCain's national political director and a longtime New Hampshire strategist. "Because Obama hasn't been there long, he's offering a different viewpoint. Ironically, McCain has been there longer, but he still represents change."
So Obama's inspirational pitch for a post-partisan national unity — "more about practicality than ideology," he says — and McCain's penchant for "straight talk" and his reputation for working across party lines are tailor-made for New Hampshire's undeclared voters. In New Hampshire, Obama has even borrowed McCain's line, insisting he's delivering "straight talk" of his own.
A new McClatchy-MSNBC poll by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research released on Sunday found that independent voters account for the leads that Obama and McCain hold.
Obama has a slim lead over New York Sen. Hillary Clinton overall, 33 percent to 31 percent, but he trails Clinton among registered Democrats, 33 percent to 30 percent. So why is he ahead overall? Obama is taking more independent voters who plan to vote in the Democratic primary, by 42 percent to 25 percent for Clinton. Plus, voters who say they want "change" go for Obama over Clinton by a stunning 65 percent to 9 percent.
On the Republican side, McCain leads former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, 32 percent to 24 percent overall in the McClatchy-MSNBC poll. Among Republicans, however, McCain leads by only 28 percent to Romney's 26 percent. Independents who plan to vote Republican, though, go for McCain by 50 percent to Romney's 18 percent, which explains McCain's overall margin.
Interestingly, Obama and McCain aren't going head to head for many voters because about 80 percent of undeclared voters lean toward one party or another.
Bill Simmons, a Manchester electrician, is an undeclared voter who said he'd been considering only Republicans: McCain, Romney and Huckabee. The war in Iraq and gun rights are big issues for Simmons, a veteran who decided on McCain because "he's the most experienced."
Simmons registered as undeclared because "we don't like being told what to do. We're pretty independent-minded people."
Undeclared voters who don't lean toward a party generally "aren't especially interested in politics," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire. "They're the ones most likely to get out for Obama because of the celebrity, the excitement, the historic nature of his campaign. I think it's going to be magnetic."
Agreed Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center: "Most undeclareds are really partisan. This idea that there's a big bloc of people deciding between McCain and Obama, I don't see any evidence for that."
Kathy Stoyle, a 43-year-old teacher who's considering both candidates, called it "an honesty thing, just a sense of who they are and whether they'd make moral decisions for our country and our planet."
Other leading candidates are wooing undeclared voters, too.
Romney, who built a campaign based on ingratiating himself with the activist GOP base, arrived here after his Iowa defeat and opened a new line of attack on McCain that's designed to reverberate with undeclared voters, deriding McCain for failing to change Washington.
Clinton has been talking about change throughout her campaign, but had focused her efforts in Iowa on traditional Democratic voters. In New Hampshire, her voter-outreach program — millions of phone calls, hundreds of thousands of door knocks — targets Democrats and independents. On Sunday, she began attacking Obama for not doing enough to change, noting his votes to fund the Iraq war and for "Dick Cheney's energy bill."
But both Romney and Clinton may have trouble pitching successfully to independents because of their identifications with their parties' establishments. Clinton, for example, voted to authorize the Iraq war, which Obama opposed.
In an exchange at Saturday's debate, Romney defended the powerful — and notoriously unpopular — pharmaceutical industry, saying, "Don't make the pharmaceutical companies into the big bad guys."
"They absolutely love the `change' word," Dennehy said of undeclared voters. "But you've got to back it up."
(William Douglas contributed to this story.)