NASHUA, N.H. — Like many New Hampshire voters, Dave Montgomery considers himself a dyed-in-the-wool independent -- which in this state means he can vote in either the Republican or Democratic presidential primary when he goes to the polls Jan. 8.
This year, the semi-retired school bus driver from Milford finds himself torn between two candidates, one from each party: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Barack Obama of (D-Ill.).
Montgomery likes McCain, he said, because "he seems to be enough of a rebel." He likes Obama for pretty much the same reason -- because he seems to be "his own man."
"I think either one of them could do the job," he said.
Independents like Montgomery may be the decisive factor for both major parties when New Hampshire holds the nation's first primary next week, hot on the heel's of Iowa's caucuses on Thursday. And the choices these nonaligned New Hampshire voters make almost assuredly will shape the nation's later primary races.
"This big group in the middle . . . has a chance to really transform the election," said Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist who is advising former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.). Describing the efforts to woo independents, he added: "It's more like a general election here."
If Obama bests national front runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), he probably will owe his New Hampshire victory to independents, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll suggested last week.
Among the state's registered Democrats, the survey found Clinton led Obama, 35% to 28%. But among independents who plan to vote in the Democratic primary, Obama led, 37% to 24% -- turning the contest into a virtual tie.
In a sense, a win for Obama would be a mirror image of McCain's primary victory in 2000, when he derailed GOP front- runner George W. Bush, largely because New Hampshire independents flocked to his side. Bush went on to win the nomination by rallying party regulars in later primaries -- a strategy Clinton no doubt would pursue.
And Obama's strength among independents now looms as a problem for McCain.
The Republican's campaign, after struggling mightily this year, has regained some of its footing and is hoping a New Hampshire win could propel him to success in later primaries. But he may fall short in the Granite State, in part because so many independents are choosing Obama.
The Times/Bloomberg poll found that among New Hampshire independents who have chosen the party primary in which they will cast a ballot, 61% said they planned to vote in the Democratic race, 39% in the GOP contest. And among those who have decided whom they will support, more than twice as many said they planned to back Obama, compared to McCain.
These voters include retiree Stephen Winship, 88, who plans to vote for Obama.
Winship said he supported McCain eight years ago "because he was candid," but won't do so now, in part because he disagrees with him over the Iraq war. McCain "has a conservative frame of mind and military background, so I think he would very much like to see this succeed," Winship said. "I think we need to get out."
Winship's shift reflects a broader trend among New Hampshire independents: Over the last eight years, they have drifted to the left.
On major issues, the Times/Bloomberg poll found that the state's independents tended to agree with Democrats more than with Republicans. For instance, asked to name the issues they considered top priorities, independents most frequently cited Iraq, healthcare and the economy -- the same ones that dominated among Democrats. The state's Republicans, by contrast, cited illegal immigration and national security first, followed by the economy and Iraq.
On Iraq, 74% of independents said they favored withdrawing U.S. troops within a year -- a view shared by 98% of Democrats, but just 33% of Republicans.
Independents often have had an outsized effect in New Hampshire's presidential primaries. In 1992, they bolstered Republican Patrick J. Buchanan to a strong second place that embarrassed President George H.W. Bush. And in 1996, they were key to Buchanan edging then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the front-runner who went on to claim the GOP nomination.
The more pronounced Democratic tilt among the state's independents surfaced in 2004, when they helped the party's presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, carry New Hampshire's electoral votes in the general election.
The change was more marked in what Republicans here call "the 2006 tsunami" that saw Democrats capture both houses of the New Hampshire Legislature for the first time in 132 years and sweep out two incumbent GOP members of Congress.
Obama and McCain, as they have courted New Hampshire independents of late, are acutely aware that they are competing not only with rivals in their own parties, but with each other.