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Voters in tiny crossroads suggest race is Obama's to lose

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David Broder
August 21, 2008
— Secretary of State Bill Gardner is as much of a New Hampshire tradition as the presidential primary he assiduously protects from all challenges. He may not know every voter in the state, but he knows every vote.

So when I called him two weeks ago and told him I was looking for a place to interview voters who mirrored the outcome of the last two presidential races here and the most recent primary, it wasn’t long before he came back with the names of four towns that met my criteria.


I picked Lyndeborough, a tiny crossroads a few miles off Route 101, halfway between Manchester and Keene, because I’d never been there. I missed the Saturday Community Day celebration, with its chicken barbecue and live music, where many voters would have been gathered, because I was tracking two U.S. Senate candidates. But last Sunday I found a shady parking place outside the Village Store, near the window sign advertising “AKC Golden Retrievers. Ready Sept. 8.”


When people drove up to replenish their beer supplies or buy loaves of bread, as a steady procession did, I delayed them long enough to ask a few questions. In four hours, I completed two-dozen interviews—not nearly enough to have any statistical validity but providing lots of insights.


In 2000, President Bush carried New Hampshire by 7,000 votes and in 2004, he lost it by 9,000—barely 1 percent each time. In Lyndeborough, Bush won by 16 votes, then lost by seven. In last winter’s primary, McCain, who won in New Hampshire, defeated Mitt Romney here by 19 votes, and Hillary Clinton had a 32-vote margin over Barack Obama on the way to her first victory of the year.


Everything I heard here points to another close finish in November. With one exception, there are few visible scars left from the primary. Obama has secured most of the Clinton supporters—though not without some doubts. Like most of the others interviewed, Gordon Starrweather, the owner-driver of an oil burner company, said the economy is “pretty bad.” He backed Clinton because he thought she had the best ideas for improving things, but over time, he has come to think Obama might be the stronger candidate. Still, he wonders if Obama will really do what he promises.


On the Republican side, those who backed Romney and Mike Huckabee earlier this year have accommodated to McCain without anxiety. Kenneth Young, bearded and ponytailed, was a Romney voter. He finds McCain “a little liberal for me,” but he has no interest in Obama and hopes McCain might choose Romney as his running mate.


The unity among Republicans I talked to was marred by the two voters who backed libertarian Ron Paul when he was running. Brian George, a young laborer, liked what Paul was saying but finds no real appeal in either McCain or Obama.


“They’re pretty much the same as far as I can see,” he said.


Leslie Hopps, out shopping with her uncle, said, “I threw away my vote on Ron Paul, just on impulse, knowing he couldn’t win,” but she is having trouble deciding what to do now. “I don’t think John McCain can run the country,” Hopps said, “but I think Obama would have a lot of trouble with the politicians who have been around for a while.”


Hopps was an exception to the general pattern of gender-gap voting. Obama cleaned up among women, while McCain was much more competitive among men. Reviewing my notes, I found that Obama had more committed supporters than did McCain—but also more questions to answer.


Julia Calocci, a software trainer who has “always been pretty much a Democrat,” backed Clinton and hoped she might be chosen for the ticket. “I’m nervous about Obama,” Calocci said. “He’s stepping into a pretty big chair.”


At the end of the day, the negative judgments about the economy and the Bush presidency were unequivocal. That makes it Obama’s race to lose. But there’s still a need for reassurance from him.


David Broder is a columnist for The Washington Post. Readers may write to him via e-mail at davidbroder@washpost.com.

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