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Courting NH Voters

It has been a frenzied week of presidential campaigning in New Hampshire. Barack Obama, John Edwards, Bill Richardson, Rudy Giuliani, and Mitt Romney were just some of the candidates to criss-cross the state.

On the Democratic side, a University of New Hampshire poll released this week shows the race tightening between the top three candidates: The survey reveals Clinton, Obama, and Edwards in a statistical tie.

The excitement generated is evident in the hundreds of people turning out to the stumps, nine months before the New Hampshire primary. WBUR's Fred Thys looks at what the big, early events mean for traditional retail politics in the Granite State.TEXT OF STORY:

FRED THYS: This week, U.S. Senator Barack Obama, of Illinois, filled the gym at Keene State College . Over the course of an hour, Obama answered questions from ten people, inluding Keene police officer John Stewart.

JOHN STEWART: As president, how are you going to be tough on crime, and what are you going to do to support law enforcement and their efforts to reduce that crime?

BARACK OBAMA: t's a wonderful question, and if you take a look at patterns of federal spending, one of the areas where, over the last six years, we've fallen short, is on helping local law enforcement do their jobs.

FRED THYS: About 1200 people turned out to see Obama, but that doesn't mean they're going to vote for him. Attorrney Adam Kossayda is a Democrat from Marlborough.

ADAM KOSSAYDA: Actually, I'm still on the fence.

FRED THYS: Also shopping around is 17-year-old Shane Carley. He says he'll be old enough to vote in the primary, and he intends to register as as an independent.

SHANE CARLEY: I'm not totally committed to him right now; I'm interested in hearing what all the candidates have to say. To be honest, the candidate that I'm most likely to vote for, I think, is Giuliani, but I'm definitely interested in going to every event that I'm able to.

FRED THYS: Carley's friend Mike Remy also plans to register as an independent, because he feels he could vote in either the Democratic or the Republican primary.

MIKE REMY: I definitely hope that that two that come out of the primaries are Giuliani and Obama.

SHANE CARLEY: Absolutely. I second that.

FRED THYS: Eight years ago, independent, or undeclared, voters, in New Hampshire made all the difference by flooding into the Republican primary and voting for John Mcain. This time, Andy Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, says undeclared voters are saying they're much more interested in the Democratic race.

ANDY SMITH: The undeclared voters in New Hampshire are overwhelmingly going to the Democratic primary. In our most recent poll, 73 per cent said they're going to vote in the Democratic primary. I think this is being driven by opposition to the war. One thing that we're seeing continually in our polls over the last couple of years in New Hampshire is that those undeclared voters are much more likely to be opposed to the war.

FRED THYS: Obama, U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton, of New York, and former U.S. Senator John Edwards, of North Carolina, draw hundreds of people at their bigger events in New Hampshire, the kinds of crowds never seen this early in a presidential campaign. But there are still the traditional small events, such as this breakfast with New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson at Consuelo's Taqueria, in Manchester.

BILL RICHARDSON: I love New Hampshire. I love the fact that you guys like underdogs. 'Cause I'm an underdog. I like where I am now. I'm movin' up. I used to be in the margin of error, and I'm up, but that's okay. I got ten months to meet a lot of people. I love your house parties. Last trip I did about six a day. That's how I campaign, like this, and I don't need big crowds in gyms.

FRED THYS: This is still a time when even the some of the most politically connected people in New Hampshire are up for grabs, and it's at events such as these that candidates can find them, and court them. As he leaves, Richardson sees someone he knows he should say hello to.

GEORGE BRUNO: Happy to talk to you. Happy to do a house party for you.

BILL RICHARDSON: Would you?

GEORGE BRUNO: Sure.

FRED THYS: It's Manchester attorney George Bruno. He backed Wesley Clark in 2004. Press reports said he is supporting Hillary Clinton this time around. Bruno says Clinton is the logical fit, but, he says, he hasn't heard from her since December. Her husband, Bruno says, was much better about staying in touch. And so here is Bruno offering to host a house party for Richardson.

GEORGE BRUNO: This is the traditional style. We're seeing a different kind of campaigning this year: more mass events.It's much more concentrated, much more intense, a little less than the one-on-one that we've experienced in the past.

FRED THYS: Bruno attributes the frenzied style of this campaign to the front-loading of the primary schedule. He says because California and other large states have moved their primaries to February 5th, candidates have less time for the one-on-one campaigning that is traditional in New Hampshire, and that, he says, could hurt the lesser known candidates, who have traditionally used the state's voters to test out their themes. Even if the style of campaigning is changing, Bob Quinn says New Hampshire doesn't seem to be in any danger of losing its traditional importance.

BOB QUINN: The evidence is in the candidates' calendars.

FRED THYS: Quinn ran Joe Lieberman's campaign four years ago. He's not with anyone this time around.

BOB QUINN: I'm not sure that any Democrat in New Hampshire can remember a time this far out from the primary at this level of activity. It's on the front page of the paper every single day up here, and if you don't live in New Hampshire, sometimes you will have a hard time grasping that.

FRED THYS: Saint Anselm College associate professor of politics Dante Scala believes that the campaigns will continue to focus on New Hampshire because the fact that the most populated states will hold their primaries in early February is actually going to increase the importance of the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

DANTE SCALA: However much money Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton raise, there's no amount of money that could offset the negative publicity if one of those two goes 0 for 2 in Iowa and in New Hampshire. There's no amount of money that could overcome a significant early stumble.

FRED THYS: And Scala says if a lesser-known candidate does well in Iowa or New Hampshire, he could offset a disadvantage in money, because most of the people in the states that vote on February 5th aren't going to pay attention until the results from Iowa and New Hampshire are in. Scala adds that the large crowds that have turned out to see the top three Democrats may be a mile wide but an inch deep.

For WBUR, I'm Fred Thys

This program aired on April 6, 2007. The audio for this program is not available.

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