President Obama waves goodbye to supporters last week at a campaign rally… (Chip Somodevilla, Getty…)
NASHUA, N.H. — New Hampshire lacks the ethnic diversity of a Florida or Nevada, or the blue-collar clout of Ohio or Wisconsin. And though it's as fiercely contested as the other eight or so battlegrounds in terms of ground game and ad saturation, it's seen comparatively little of the presidential candidates.
One reason why: New Hampshire is the rare battleground without any significant early or absentee voting, the increasingly common practice that has become a driver of campaign strategy for much of October. That's particularly true for President Obama, who cast his own ballot in person last week in Illinois to visibly promote the practice.
In New Hampshire, though, the only early voting is the kind that will take place at Dixville Notch, the remote northern hamlet that opens and closes its polls at midnight. All but a small fraction of the state's half-million or so votes are expected to come during regular Election Day hours.
In 2008, a majority of the votes cast in Florida, North Carolina, Nevada and Colorado were cast early or by mail. And in Virginia, Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa, the percentage of early votes ranged from 11% to 36%. The campaigns have both worked to expand those numbers, and of late are working overtime to claim momentum from what each says is an early advantage.
No such tea leaves will be found in the Granite State, where in 2008 just about 1% of voters cast absentee ballots. The state still requires voters to offer an excuse to vote early. Veteran observers say most here simply choose to see the campaign through until the end.
"The last weekend matters. As it always has," says Bill Gardner, New Hampshire's longtime secretary of state.
"New Hampshire's a late-deciding state — at least it's a late-committing state," says former Gov. John Sununu, a co-chairman of Mitt Romney's campaign. "They may be decided but they're not going to tell you. And sometimes they're telling you just the opposite to be perverse."
That's why, after weeks in which neither party nominee visited the state, both campaigns have stepped up their presence. When Obama campaigned in Manchester on Oct. 18, it was his first visit since the day after the Democratic National Convention. He was back on Saturday in Nashua, one day after Jill Biden held events at the far northern extreme and a day before Joe Biden flew in and out on a storm-shortened trip to rally volunteers at the campaign's state headquarters.
"You guys are the epicenter," he said. "You not only determine who our nominees are, you determine who our presidents are."
Romney's first rally here in seven weeks was to come Tuesday, but, like Biden and First Lady Michelle Obama, he nixed those plans because of Hurricane Sandy. He will, though, hold his final campaign rally here on election eve, with special guest Kid Rock, a fitting bookend more than a year and a half after he launched his second presidential bid in the state.
Romney also heightened his television ad presence after a long period in which Obama had the advantage. His campaign is now spending money on the more expensive Boston television market, which penetrates into the southern tier of the state — filled with Massachusetts emigrants — in a bid to overcome a deficit in the polls.
The University of New Hampshire poll has fluctuated significantly, from a 3-point Obama lead in August to a 15-point advantage in late September. The most recent survey had him leading Romney 51% to 42%, with 7% undecided.
But Obama knows all too well how fickle voters here can be. The double-digit lead he built over Hillary Rodham Clinton in the state after winning the Iowa caucuses was undone in five days, and her victory forced the two combatants into a six-month battle for the nomination.
New Hampshire has the fewest electoral votes of the most hotly contested states — just four. But in a razor-thin vote, neither side can afford to write it off.
"We don't know how this thing is gonna play out," Obama said at a stop at the Teamsters Local 633 in Manchester on Saturday. "These four electoral votes right here could make the difference."
"I was here in 2000 when New Hampshire's four votes would have [won] the election for Al Gore. So that's why we're not taking anything for granted," said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who served as governor when George W. Bush carried the state.
Andy Smith, who conducts the UNH poll, said that while Obama maintains an advantage here, enthusiasm among Democrats lags behind 2008 levels, while Republicans appear to be more motivated behind Romney than they were for Sen. John McCain.
"You [could] have the bottom drop out in terms of marginal support for Obama," Smith said. "It will be a lot easier for them to not vote. I think that's what Republicans did in 2008."
Much of what drives Obama's strategy in other states does not apply to New Hampshire. There is no early vote and no significant growing minority population, meaning that he has less ability to increase his strongest segment of the electorate. The exception: women's issues, which the campaign says are as powerful, if not more powerful, here than anywhere else.
Shaheen's introduction of Obama at the Nashua rally Saturday underscored that fact.
"You know, here in the Granite State, we don't need binders full of women. We've got ballots full of women!" she said. The Democratic nominees for governor and in both congressional races are women. "The women of the Granite State say thanks but no thanks to Mitt Romney."
Sununu says the winning message for Romney is easy: taxes and spending, reflecting the state's longtime enmity toward both.
"We're overspending in America and we're overtaxing," he said. "And the small-business community reinforces that up here."