TILTON, N.H. — Don't tell a New Hampshire voter what to do.
These Yankee stoics will make up their minds about Tuesday's Republican primary when they're good and ready. They spent the weekend seeing and studying the candidates in their own deliberate way. And frankly, they'll tell you, none of 'em are all that impressive.
They only insist they agree with them on one big issue.
"I don't want the government to tell me what to do," said Stephanie Wales, an Amherst photographer.
And they're more kind to someone who shares their no-nonsense ways.
Valerie Merchant, a Windham real estate agent, likes former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. "Newt shoots from the hip," she explains. "It's a New England thing. We don't have to think about our answers. It comes naturally."
The polls say former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has a commanding lead, particularly because he's lived among them for years. He's got a house in Wolfeboro and ran the neighboring state from 2003 to 2007.
But there's this feeling that he's really not one of them — "I'm leery of people with a lot of money," said Ruth Albert, a Kingston postal worker, as she waited for Romney to speak at a spaghetti dinner in Tilton.
The most telling poll statistic about the first-in-the-nation primary might be this: 37 percent of voters have definitely decided who to vote for, according to a new University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll. Twenty-six percent are leaning toward a choice, and 37 percent have not made up their mind.
They want to be sure their pick is their kind of politician. They worry that the state and nation are changing too fast, that too many people feel entitled to all kinds of government benefits and have lost their self-reliance.
New Hampshire's conservative politics used to seem carved in granite. The "Live Free or Die" state would elect office holders vowing to keep taxes low (there's still no general sales or income tax on wages here) and protect individual rights (gun owners are a powerful group).
That began to change in the 1970s, as the low taxes, less expensive housing and technology jobs wooed people who worked in the nearby Boston area. Today, towns such as Nashua, Hudson and Salem are almost indistinguishable from Boston bedroom communities.
People brought their politics with them — socially liberal but fiscally conservative. The state has had Democratic governors for 13 of the past 15 years, and one, Jeanne Shaheen, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2008.
But the rock-ribbed "leave me alone" tradition survives, sometimes forcefully.
"There's this undertone among the people of this state. They want to live free," said William Domenico, who runs a Manchester electrical supply business. "But that's been diluted in recent years as people came in from other states, bringing their entitlement desires with them."
Not everyone. James Osborne, an Auburn small business owner, moved his family from Ohio last year because of the state's libertarian reputation.
"I wanted my children to grow up in a place where people were not forcing each other do the things they don't want to do," he said.
Look at it this way, said Wales: An adult can buy all the alcohol they want and drink themselves to death. But killing themselves with drugs would involve an illegal act.
"The government should not be in control of what people could do themselves," said Wales, who neither drinks nor uses drugs.
This would seem to be fertile political ground for libertarian Republican Ron Paul, and Paul's rallies have drawn the campaign's most enthusiastic crowds. But while Paul runs second in most state polls, he's having trouble expanding his appeal.
New Hampshire people want to be left alone, but they also want protection. Paul wants to reduce U.S. involvement in foreign affairs.
Paul Emond, a Hudson retiree, boasts "you can't be conservative enough for me," but thought Paul "doesn't have his head screwed on straight when it comes to foreign policy."
The candidates understand this delicate balance, and they keep visiting certain places where the electorate seems particularly curious, places such as the Tilton area, which looks and feels like classic old New England. Last week, former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania spoke at the restored railroad station. Romney helped serve spaghetti dinners at the old Tilton School.
Each candidate tried plain talk. "Trust your head, your heart, your gut," said Santorum, adding, "I trust you. I really do."
Romney said he understood why his poll lead may not be secure. "What you say to a pollster is a bit like going on a date," he explained. "It's like well, I might try this but you know, getting married, that's something else."
Romney's quip drew scattered applause, hardly surprising in a roomful of folks with raised eyebrows and pursed lips.
The politicians come to Tilton because its political profile mirrors that of the state. roughly 40 percent of registered New Hampshire voters are "undeclared," or independent, and the rest are split between Republicans and Democrats. Tilton has the same ratios.
It's a predominantly Catholic town with plenty of blue collar workers but also lots of professionals. Median income is somewhat less than that of the state. Crime is negligible. Skiing is nearby; Boston's 80 miles away. President Barack Obama narrowly won Belknap County, which includes the area, in 2008.
So far, people don't seem overly impressed with any candidate.
"I'm not quite there for Romney," said Linda Stone, a homemaker. "I have concerns about some of his changing views," notably on abortion. Romney was sympathetic to abortion rights when he ran for governor but has since said he's firmly against them.
This reluctance to embrace Romney is common throughout the area, reflecting the poll findings.
Brendan Florio, a local auto dealer, is trying to choose among Gingrich, Santorum and Romney. His view is typical — he's thinking hard, weighing each candidate carefully, and plans to make a careful, logical decision.
"I wish these guys were like Mr. Potato Head, where you could take one idea from one, one idea from another and make them one," Florio said. "Romney's not conservative enough for me, but that doesn't mean I won't vote for him.
"I want someone who can beat Obama."
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