WINDHAM, N.H. — The outcome of Tuesday's New Hampshire primary probably depends on this state's historically flinty, unpredictable independent voters.
About 40 percent of the state's registered voters are formally unaffiliated with any political party, and they can vote in the GOP primary. Some who plan to vote supported President Barack Obama in 2008. Some think Mitt Romney, former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, is their kind of independent. And some wear the "undeclared" label because it makes them feel, well, independent.
"I just don't want to be locked into one party," said Vincent Balukonis, a Salem retiree.
The independents are usually a wild card in the state's first-in-the-nation primary. In 2008, 37 percent of those voting in the GOP primary were independent, and they pushed Arizona Sen. John McCain to victory over Romney, according to exit polls. With no contested Democratic primary this time, the percentage of independents in the GOP contest is expected to rise.
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Last time Romney topped McCain among Republicans, 35 to 34 percent. But McCain had a decisive 40 to 27 percent edge among independents, and beat Romney in the primary, 37 to 31 percent.
This year, the independents' preference is harder to figure. About 40 percent of the state's 767,383 registered voters are "undeclared," while the rest are split roughly between Republicans and Democrats. Polls find Texas Rep. Ron Paul does well among independents, Romney has some support, and former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman's often blunt approach has won praise.
But so far, no single candidate has been able to clearly galvanize the independents like the tough-talking, sarcastic McCain did in 2000 and again in 2008, as he cruised the state in his "Straight Talk Express" touring bus.
McCain is back, campaigning for Romney. But often their rallies highlight the two men’s' stylistic differences. Romney gives his patriotic speech, blasts President Barack Obama and offers well-honed responses to questions; the more casual McCain cracks jokes and ad libs.
Romney hardly presents the kind of damn-the-establishment style the independents crave.
Huntsman has some potential there, but voters see his prospects as limited.
Scott White, a Windham financial-services consultant, liked Huntsman's intelligence and international background. But he added, "I don't know. Romney might be the guy who can beat Obama. I'm not sure Huntsman can."
The independents are hard to handicap because they tend to fall roughly into three categories: Those who liked Romney's performance as governor, voted for Obama, or have a strong libertarian streak.
The group that could most help Romney are the fans of his 2003-2007 stewardship of Massachusetts. But much of what attracts them — Romney's record of moderation and working with Democrats as governor — makes many conservatives suspicious of him.
South-central New Hampshire towns can be walking distance from Massachusetts towns, and less than an hour by car to the Boston area. Lots of people here lived in Massachusetts at one time, still work there and appreciate Romney’s record.
"There was a real logic to how he governed," said Suzanne Deane, a Salem lighting showroom employee who lived in Massachusetts.
"He did work with a lot of Democrats. Kudos to him," added Richard Stevens, a Hudson systems analyst. Romney often explains how he had to work with Massachusetts' overwhelmingly Democratic legislature to win passage of a health care initiative, which requires nearly everyone in the state to obtain coverage — a law that conservatives loathe.
Romney also could get a boost from Obama supporters.
"I wanted a change," explained Martin Wiley, a Salem chimney sweeper, explaining his 2008 vote for Obama. But his business has been hit by the sluggish economy, and he wants help.
"Obama just didn't pull it off. He seems to enjoy golf more than anything else," Wiley said.
He won't vote for Obama again, and is thinking about Romney and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum. But he's still got time.
"I'll probably decide on Election Day when I get up in the morning," he said.
Gilbert Boujaoude, a Salem software engineer, knows Romney's record and likes it. He backed Obama last time, and will go for him again "only if Mitt Romney doesn't make it."
Romney will have a bigger problem with the third cluster of independents. These are largely libertarians who refuse to be shackled by any party label. Many are expected to vote for Paul, who in 2008 got 13 percent of the independent vote.
Most, though, are uncertain. Balukonis said he leans libertarian. As an example of government intrusion, he cites "those crazy light bulbs." Traditional incandescent bulbs are supposed to be phased out by law in favor of more energy-efficient ones, though Congress last month blocked government funds that would be used to enforce the law.
While Paul is the 2012 apostle of individual freedom, Balukonis says, "I don't like his foreign policy," a common complaint about Paul’s isolationist views.
"Ron Paul is poised to do well here," said Concord Republican consultant Matt Murphy. "But when you say it doesn't matter if Iran gets nuclear weapons, people here are sophisticated, and they think you're out of touch."
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