KEENE, N.H. — Heather and Andy Collins, both independent voters, are a house divided -- torn between Sens. Barack Obama, the Illinois Democrat, and John McCain, the Arizona Republican.
"Those are the two candidates we feel can work [with both parties] and get things done," said Andy Collins, a carpenter.
The couple said each of them could vote for either Obama or McCain -- but after watching Obama on television and hearing McCain speak in the town square on Monday, they may end up splitting the difference. He's leaning toward McCain, she's tilting toward Obama -- but they could still change their minds.
The Collinses mirror thousands of waffling, dithering, agonizing independents across New Hampshire -- many of whom are choosing, paradoxically, between a Democrat who boasts that he was among the first to oppose the Iraq war and a Republican who says he has been more hawkish than President Bush.
The independents may be the key to this election for McCain, who is locked in a tight race with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. A CNN/WMUR poll released Monday showed McCain ahead of Romney 31% to 26%, but most of that margin came from independents, not registered Republicans. Obama has galloped ahead of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) by a larger margin, 39% to 30%, and is also winning largely because of his support from independents, the poll showed.
For McCain, a key factor is whether his independents turn out in big enough numbers to overtake Romney's supporters, who are being marshaled by a better-funded, well-organized field operation.
Independents, who make up 45% of the electorate here, can vote in either party's primary -- and they tend to decide late, making them susceptible to last-minute campaign pleas. (An early December Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll showed that 29% of registered voters nationally identify as independents. In California, records show that 19% of voters decline to state a party affiliation.)
That has made them the targets of frenzied campaigning by candidates from both parties. And it has meant that Obama and McCain aren't merely running against rivals in their own parties; they're competing with each other for the votes of a handful of independents in the middle. Voters like Barbara Muchi, 60, a retired teacher who has wavered between the two for months.
Obama is "classy, inspired," she said after hearing him at Nashua's North High School on Saturday. But she still had doubts. "He's very uplifting and all, but is it real?" she asked.
So on Sunday, she went to hear McCain speak, and was impressed -- despite her qualms about his support for the war. "I'd like [the war] to be over, but maybe he knows a whole lot more than we realize about why we have to stay there," she said. She's leaning toward McCain, she says.
James Fallon, a financial portfolio manager from Salem, also planned to attend events held by both candidates to try to make up his mind. Asked why he narrowed his choices to Obama and McCain, Fallon said it was because both "seem to rise above the nonsense" of partisan politics. He said he'll probably vote for McCain because of his longer experience. "He demonstrated his ability to bring both parties together in the past," he said.
The CNN/WMUR poll, which is conducted by the University of New Hampshire, found that both independents and registered Democrats have surged into Obama's camp since the Illinois senator won the Iowa caucuses last week. Poll results released Monday found Obama essentially tied with Clinton among registered Democrats. But among independents, Obama was leading Clinton by a whopping 45% to 24%.
McCain, too, has been increasing in strength in New Hampshire -- but less dramatically than Obama, the poll indicated. Among Republicans, McCain was barely ahead of Romney, 30% to 28%, a result within the margin of error. Among independents, McCain was ahead of Romney by a larger margin, 34% to 23%. Overall, McCain was ahead of Romney 31% to 26%.
The poll found a large number of voters still trying to make up their minds: 27% of likely Republican primary voters and 21% of likely Democratic primary voters, including both independents and non-independents.
"The final days will prove which campaign has the political organization to turn out their voters," said UNH Prof. Andrew E. Smith, director of the poll.
"A key to Romney's strategy is that the primary is going to be dominated by registered Republicans," not independents, said Fergus Cullen, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
Cullen and other GOP strategists have suggested that Obama's victory in Iowa could have hurt McCain, because it might draw independents away from the Republican contest to vote for the Democrat.
If Clinton had won in Iowa, they argued, independents who had been leaning toward Obama might have lost interest in the Democratic primary and chosen to vote for McCain instead.