Politics & Government

Despite everything, McCain still has a shot in N. Hampshire

John McCain celebrates in Nashua, N.H.
John McCain celebrates in Nashua, N.H. Darin Oswald / MCT

MANCHESTER, N.H. — The economy stinks. The Iraq war is a mess. And President Bush is doing a lousy job.

So think solid majorities of people in New Hampshire. Yet John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, still has a decent chance of winning this swing state in November, because of independent voters such as Sally Teague.

"We need a change, no doubt," said the Sullivan County upholsterer, who voted for Democrat Barack Obama in the January primary.

But as she compares the two men, Teague finds, "I've always liked McCain. He's well-known around the globe. He's got experience."

Everything should be breaking Obama's way in this state, where Democrats scored big victories for governor and Congress in 2006 and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry won in 2004.

Yet McCain starts his bid for New Hampshire's four electoral votes with an important potential advantage: He's not only well-known, he's something of a local hero.

Voters in this first-in-the-nation primary state cling fiercely to their political independence; some 45 percent are registered "undeclared" or unaffiliated with political parties. They're proud of how they've used their primary to discover national stars, such as Eugene McCarthy in 1968 and Jimmy Carter in 1976.

And McCain in 2000, when he crisscrossed the state in his bus, answered endless hours of questions at town hall meetings and got independent voters to help him win a smashing victory over George W. Bush in the Republican primary.

"There's still a lot of good will towards him. One thing you hear is that if only the country had followed our lead back then, maybe it wouldn't have some of the problems it has today," said Wayne Lesperance, an associate professor of political science at New England College in Hennicker.

Obama, on the other hand, did well in January's Democratic primary but didn't emerge a star here. He finished a close second to Hillary Clinton and won 41 percent of the independent vote, the best showing of any candidate among New Hampshire independents but not an overwhelming tally.

Today, he faces the same skepticism from independent-minded voters here that he probably will confront in other parts of the nation.

"He's just too new," said Mary Hall, a Unity store owner.

"He's young. He thinks he'll change everything. But things usually stay the same," added Nathan Lamy, who works in a Manchester dry cleaner.

Then there's that McCain factor.

"Bush disappointed me," said David Daniels, a Manchester coffee shop owner. "The economy's awful, and gas prices are terrible, and he needs to get us out of Iraq."

Yet McCain, he said, is impressive because "he doesn't just go with the status quo. If he agrees with a Democrat, he'll work with him. He's a real independent."

Democrats here counter that they'll remind voters that while the Arizona senator may be a great guy, "he's a Republican and Obama is not," said Cynthia Kellner, a Manchester physical therapy assistant.

They also have a ready answer for the inexperience argument.

"Nobody had more experience than Cheney and Rumsfeld, and look where that got us," said Eileen Burke, a Manchester graphic designer. Vice President Dick Cheney and former Bush Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld each had been the secretary of defense in previous administrations.

Obama's backers see the economy as his major advantage. While the numbers here aren't bad — April's 3.8 percent jobless rate was roughly the same as a year earlier, and the lowest in New England — people are uneasy about their jobs and finances.

The Illinois senator, many voters said, seems more sensitive to their concerns, and they welcome his pledges to overhaul health care and boost spending for key social programs.

Sandra Burt, an AARP volunteer from Concord, was laid off from her job at an auto parts plant last year after 40 years. She struggled to pay her $2,000 out-of-pocket prescription expenses (she now gets help from a foundation), and sees Obama as someone who'll spend less on war and more on domestic issues.

"We're spending so much on the Iraq war. Why should I have to fight so hard to pay for my medicine?" she asked.

But it's hard to find many people who are completely comfortable with Obama, as the I-don't-know-him problem emerges in many conversations.

Ladislau Lala, a Manchester bakery owner, is a Democrat who feels the slumping economy in his Elm Street shop every day. McCain, he said, "is a little better than Bush," and some recent developments involving Obama trouble him, notably his rejection of public campaign financing.

"Obama sells himself out," Lala charged.

Others are prepared to go for Obama on the issues despite reservations.

Four months from Election Day, New Hampshire — like the nation — is impossible to call.

"To the extent Obama gets tagged as a big taxer, McCain could get help," Lesperance said, "but then again, the Democrats' desire to win may trump any hard feelings or question marks."