By STEVE PEOPLES, Associated Press
DERRY, N.H. (AP) — Perhaps no presidential battleground will test the leanings of critical independent voters more than the "Live Free or Die" state, the launching pad for Mitt Romney's White House bid.
President Barack Obama won New Hampshire handily four years ago, but former Massachusetts Gov. Romney's ties run deep in a place that has vacillated between Republicans and Democrats in recent years. Both campaigns are flooding the tiny state with money and attention, suggesting more may be at stake than four electoral votes in an election each side expects will be a nail-biter to the end.
Indeed, in some ways, the battle for this state is almost personal.
"Gov. Romney has a very special relationship with New Hampshire," says Jim Merrill, a top New Hampshire-based strategist for both of Romney's presidential campaigns.
Romney grew up in Michigan and is registered to vote in Massachusetts. But he formally declared his candidacy on a New Hampshire farm one year ago, spends summer weekends in a vacation home on the state's largest lake and launches his six-state bus tour here Friday.
Despite the familiarity, there is little doubt that Romney — sometimes dubbed an "adopted New Hampshire son" — faces a steep climb.
Recent polls give Obama an early edge. Romney also is just beginning to awaken a local campaign apparatus that's largely been dormant for months. Obama's team, meanwhile, activated its grassroots network long ago.
The walls were still bare in parts of Romney's state headquarters last week, the same day Obama's team hosted nearly two dozen house parties across the state. Scores of Democratic volunteers gathered at strangers' kitchen tables, on front porches and in sewing rooms to make calls, recruit more volunteers and attack their Republican opponent.
"I've loved Obama since the beginning," says Mary Hogarty, an energetic 72-year-old retiree who opened her small Derry home to two dozen Obama volunteers she had never met. She said she thinks the economy is "better than people make it out to be."
She is not alone, especially in a state with an economy stronger than the nation's.
New Hampshire's unemployment rate stands at just 5 percent, among the best in the country, compared to the nationwide average of 8.2 percent. Romney argues that any economic success is in spite of — not because of — Obama's leadership. That's an argument Republicans are making in other swing states with below average unemployment rates — Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and Colorado among them.
The latest University of New Hampshire poll showed that half of voters in the state approve of Obama's job performance. The survey, conducted before the economy showed signs of softening in April, gave Obama a 9-point lead. Independents — the group expected to decide contests in key battleground states — favored Romney.
Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats in New Hampshire, but nearly 40 percent of voters are not registered with any party.
"Right now our polls are showing Obama in the lead and his approval rating has ticked up slightly," says UNH pollster Andy Smith. "But come November, this race is going to be neck and neck, probably decided by 1 percent."
It may come down to which side can drive turnout. And on that measure, Obama's organization has a distinct early advantage.
Romney was a regular New Hampshire presence before the state's first-in-the-nation primary in January, but spent subsequent months traversing the country fighting his GOP opponents. He returned to New Hampshire in late April and delivered what most consider his opening general election address when it became clear he was his party's presumptive presidential nominee.
Since then, consumed by fundraising across the country, Romney has campaigned in New Hampshire just twice. His state headquarters opened less than a week ago and he has since opened just one other office.
The Obama campaign, by contrast opened its eighth state office Thursday. Its Manchester headquarters is well worn, with young staffers buzzing about and boxes of granola bars, chips and pretzels stacked in a corner. Vice President Joe Biden has visited New Hampshire three times this year. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have visited once each in an official capacity, and Obama was expected to campaign in Strafford County on June 25.