In New Hampshire, Obama and Romney Can't Take Anything for 'Granite'

New Hampshire's fickle voters have high expectations when it comes to presidential wooing.

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Those independent voters are fickle, too. In 2006 and 2008, everything fell to the Democrats. In 2006, for example, Democrats unseated the two Republican congressmen. But in 2010, Tea Party fever struck. Both Democratic House incumbents lost to Republicans and the Sarah Palin-endorsed Kelly Ayotte, who has proven to be a rising GOP star on the national stage, ascended to the U.S. Senate. Additionally, voters elected a more socially conservative crop of state legislators than the state has seen for some time.

So despite the old political maxims that hold, there are new factors in play when it comes to New Hampshire politics, which cuts both ways in the presidential campaign. Like their national counterparts, the two political parties have become more divergent over the years, most notably among the GOP. Some of the libertarian, Rockefeller Republican-types that have ruled the local party for decades have fallen in favor of a crop of more socially-oriented conservatives.

Neil Levesque, director of St. Anselm Institute of Politics, says New Hampshire Republicans used to be large landowners in rural areas, but due to recent migration from other states, New Hampshire has become more regionally divided. "Those people were escaping big government and taxes and now those areas are solidly Republican. And the towns out towards the Connecticut River for example, have gone the way of Vermont and it's become very much a Democratic stronghold," he says.

When it comes to the presidential election, there are a few things to keep in mind, local experts say. Notably, despite Romney's close ties to the area and near-constant campaign presence in recent years, New Hampshire voters aren't giving him the same support they gave Kerry in 2004. Though Romney handily won this year's primary, he lost to Arizona Sen. John McCain in 2008.

Democrats may also be exploiting social issues to gain an advantage, both in pumping up voter enthusiasm and in converting conservative and independent women voters to Obama supporters. "There's been a surprising amount of talk about social issues, such as abortion and even contraception, in New Hampshire that began in the spring," says Scala thanks to bills debated in the state legislature. "Republicans here tend to be libertarian and are ambivalent about issues like gay marriage and abortion so those social issues tend to fracture the Republican base, whereas economic issues or tax issues can historically fracture the Democratic base," he says.

Ray Buckley, chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, adds that Republicans may be in trouble in the Granite state because, among other things, the legislature voted to cut state university funding—already the lowest in the nation—in half.

MacDonald, Buckley's Republican counterpart, says the battle lines are drawn and all that remains now is execution. "It's certainly with independents where the challenge lies and Republicans have done well most of the time making that case," he says. "In 2006 we didn't. But 2010 was a different story and we're working on making our case with the independents right now and we feel confident we can do well in 2012."

Given New Hampshire's penchant for picking winners, the whole country is eager to know where the independents fall.

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  • Rebekah Metzler is a political writer for U.S. News & World Report. You can contact her at rmetzler@usnews.com or follow her on Twitter.