Undecideds Could Hold the Key in New Hampshire

Familiarity may be as much a liability as an asset as candidates make last-minute pitches.

A crowd listens as Hillary Clinton delivers a speech at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton.

A crowd listens as Clinton delivers a speech at Winnacunnet High School in Hampton.

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DOVER, N.H.—Waiting for Hillary Clinton to speak at a middle school gym, her campaign staffers played a game of "Hillary Trivia." Priming the audience for the speech, they offered T-shirts to those who could answer questions, like where the candidate graduated from law school. It was an audience well versed in its candidate's record and biography.

A few miles away and a day earlier, a crowd waiting for Barack Obama heard from an undecided voter who confessed, with a little smile, that she had once cast a vote for Ronald Reagan. When asked who else was still undecided on the eve of the first-in-the-nation primary, dozens of hands shot up.

As voters here head to the polls, it could be those undecideds—and the newly converted—who will make the difference. And, in the wake of the Iowa caucuses where Clinton finished a disappointing third, familiarity could be a liability as much as an asset.

"Voters have had 16 years to know about Hillary Clinton," says one pollster. "They know her and may turn to Obama if they think that he's a viable candidate to win the general election." Meg Laverty, a nurse from Stratham, says she was impressed by Obama. His win in Iowa, she says, "makes people look differently at him."

The latest polls show that New Hampshire is taking a different look. Obama, who trailed Clinton at the New Year, has widened his lead to 39 percent to 29 percent. John Edwards, in all estimations, is polling a distant third.

On the Republican side, Mitt Romney, once the favorite in the state, has seen his rival John McCain overtake him in the polls since the first of December. McCain, who has capitalized on Granite State goodwill since the 2000 primaries, now has 32 percent support from likely voters.

A win here would be a huge boost to the McCain campaign and a potentially fatal loss for Romney. Following a bad loss in Iowa (after spending millions of dollars, he finished 9 points behind come-from-behind winner Huckabee), the former Massachusetts governor now polls at 26 percent, with Rudy Giuliani, Iowa winner Mike Huckabee, and Fred Thompson trailing significantly.

In their last day of campaigning, the candidates emphasized their strengths and most of all their capacity to make and bring "change" to Washington, politics, and the world at large. It's a time-tested campaign refrain, a promise nearly impossible not to keep, and a theme that resonated with voters in Iowa.

Obama told voters in Exeter to think of him as a "hopemonger" and stuck to positive rhetorical themes of cooperation. And he exhorted his supporters in Manchester on Monday not to rest on his Iowa laurels. "Don't take this race for granted."

Clinton, meanwhile, touted her experience as someone ready to take the reins of the executive from Day 1. She underlined that in Dover on Monday afternoon, talking about the terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom just days after the election of Prime Minister Gordon Brown. It was, she said, "no coincidence" that terrorists decided to test a new leader in the first days of his time in office.

Hours earlier, pols gasped as cameras caught Clinton in an emotional moment, after being asked about the strain of the campaign. She appeared to come close to tears in what some were calling a "near Muskie moment," a reference to a tearful (or snowflake-induced) moment in New Hampshire that sank the 1972 presidential campaign of Maine Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie. Voters heading home from work on Monday heard reports of the incident on the radio.

The Republicans, too, touted their agendas for change.

"I spent my life changing things," Romney told a group of workers from the Timberland boot and clothing company in Stratham, N.H., on Monday morning, citing his work with the troubled Salt Lake City Olympics, as a venture capitalist, and as governor of Massachusetts.

John McCain, whose campaign has rejuvenated itself in the wake of his new popularity in the polls, took a swing at the various, often contradictory stances on issues that Romney has had in the past on issues like abortion. During a debate this weekend, McCain quipped: "I just wanted to say to Governor Romney, we disagree on a lot of issues, but I agree you are the candidate of change."