Independent voters hold the key to swing primary

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The Independent US

Even less than one week ago, Lynn Schur was pretty confident that Mitt Romney was going to be her man come primary day in New Hampshire. But then she did a daft thing. She spent the entire weekend crossing between competing candidates' rallies. Result: she and her husband, David, are now in a dither.

The dilemma for Ms Schur, an architectural designer, and David, a corporate credit manager, is all the more acute because they are independents, registered with neither of the parties.

So when the polling stations open today, they must decide whether to give their votes to a Republican or a Democrat.

The Schurs are hardly alone. Roughly two-fifths of all those going to the polls in New Hampshire describe themselves as independents who, at the last moment, may not only switch between favoured candidates but also between parties. It makes their choices broader and the outcome more unpredictable.

If the four days between the Iowa caucuses and the primary here have been gruelling for the runners, it hasn't been a breeze for residents of the state either and not just because of the traffic jams caused by candidates' caravans criss-crossing the countryside or the tailbacks of supporters behind them.

By late Sunday, the Schurs, both 61, were queuing to see Barack Obama at the High School in Salem, near the Massachusetts border the sixth rally for them in two days. Three hours before, they were at a John McCain event across the road. David scoffed a sandwich between the two and broke a tooth.

Dental challenges aside, Mr Schur is holding up, even though when Senator Obama finally shows up he is more than two hours later than advertised. He has seen Obama before four months ago and wants to check if his message is still the same. He has read both Obama's books. In fact, David has read every book that any of the candidates in the presidential race have ever written.

Like many folk in New Hampshire the Schurs positively relish the opportunity to take part in a vote as potentially pivotal to the presidential contest and to America's future as this one. "I want to see Obama because this may become history," he admits. Lynn is intrigued for another reason. She went to school in Illinois with Hillary Clinton, who was one year below her. She does not support her though.

Obama and McCain, for the Democrats and Republicans respectively, are ahead in the polls going into the vote and most political commentators agree they are both being buoyed in part by the Schurs and other independents like them in the state.

Indeed, many of those cramming into the Salem High School had been to the McCain rally before it and were on the fence between him and Obama. Randy Brooks is coy about being here for Obama he is a campaign volunteer for McCain. "I took the afternoon off to hear him," he says, grinning.

Dante Scala, associate professor of politics at the University of New Hampshire, said: "A lot of these voters tend to be attracted to what's new about American politics and especially after the Iowa caucuses there is that new celebrity status attached to Obama.

"He's a movement candidate who has actually won something and that's a big spur to undeclared voters and independents."

If Mr Obama becomes a magnet for independents today even those who usually vote Republican it could become a big problem not just for his Democrat rivals for but also for Mr McCain, who is in a tight race with Mr Romney. And his supporters know it.

Barack Obama knows it too. When on stage, he lowers his voice to a theatrical whisper to tell us how that, over and over, people are coming up to him on the campaign trail, leaning into his ear and confiding, "I'm a Republican and I'm going to support you."

He pauses before going on. "Thank you, but why are we whispering?" The audience laughs. In New Hampshire, switching party loyalties is no dirty secret.

Barry Rogers, who attended both the McCain and Obama events, normally votes Republican but can't help being drawn by Obama. He just wishes he could vote twice, for a Republican and a Democrat. In fact, he is hoping they both end up being their parties' nominees.