Magazine article Newsweek

Independents' Day: A New Riddle for 2000: Can Bradley and McCain Pick Up Crucial Support among New Hampshire's Flinty Independents? If They Do, Watch Out

Magazine article Newsweek

Independents' Day: A New Riddle for 2000: Can Bradley and McCain Pick Up Crucial Support among New Hampshire's Flinty Independents? If They Do, Watch Out

Article excerpt

At 31, Peter Houde of Nashua, N.H., takes his duties seriously. The grandson of immigrants, he's an accountant with a wife and four young kids. Now, as the 2000 campaign approaches, he's taking on another responsible task, this one created by New Hampshire's unique voting laws. Houde is planning to register as an "independent," which will allow him to decide at the last minute which party's ballot to use in next winter's pivotal primary. Late last week, at Alec's Shoes on Main Street, Houde went over his wish list. As a Gen-X dad, he wanted to know about proposals for HMOs and schools. But character counted more. "We could use a straight shooter," said Houde. "Someone who cares more about integrity than popularity." He was intrigued by Bill Bradley and John McCain, the two men who had campaigned that day in Nashua. "They seem decent, and pretty high on the integrity scale. Bradley may be too liberal, and I don't know much about McCain. But I'm looking. "

Most of the rest of America still hasn't tuned in to the presidential campaign. CNN's cablecasts of last week's "town hall" candidate forums at Dartmouth College drew fewer viewers than "Dawson's Creek" reruns. But, exempting the upcoming holiday seasons, there are a scant eight campaign weeks until the nomination race actually begins. And in places like Iowa and New Hampshire, the pace is intense. The candidates are thick upon the ground and, increasingly, in ads on local television.

Ground zero of the fast-approaching presidential campaign is on Main Street, among the dutiful, skeptical, swing-voting independents of places like Nashua. Drawn to the action late in the game, these voters give front runners fits, and presage trends that appear nationwide later. And there are more independents than ever before. At 36 percent of the electorate, they are now more numerous in New Hampshire than either the Republicans or Democrats. Party allegiance is declining everywhere, but New Hampshirites already have arrived where America as a whole seems to be heading. "The independents are crucial here," said Tom Rath, a longtime leader of the New Hampshire GOP. "They make you, or break you."

For now, at least, independents seem intrigued by an informal, cross-party Bradley-McCain alliance. In the new NEWSWEEK Poll, Vice President Al Gore leads Bradley nationally by 40 to 25 percent among Democrats. Though Bradley didn't gain ground last week, Gore lost 9 percentage points in the Democratic race. And in New Hampshire, Bradley has moved into the lead in most polls. In the GOP contest, Texas Gov. George W. Bush continues to clobber all comers. He inherited most of Elizabeth Dole's support, and lengthened his lead over the second-place McCain to 63 to 12 percent. But up in New Hampshire, McCain is cutting into Bush's lead, and has emerged as his main rival.

What's going on? In New Hampshire, voters love to send a message to the perceived powers that be. In the old days--starting in 1980--the message was: fix the economy. The state was mired in a slow, painful transition from mill wheels to multimedia. Nashua's Main Street was dotted with empty storefronts when Ronald Reagan came there to upset the front runner at the time, George H. W. Bush. The town looked the same in 1984, when young baby-boomer families flooded the polls to support Gary Hart over Walter Mondale--and signal the demise of the old, union-driven Democratic Party. In 1992 Pat Buchanan capitalized on recession and trade fears to expose President Bush's weakness.

But now the emerging concerns seem more personal, and sometimes less tangible: health care, education standards and the ethics of our leaders. The Digital Revolution has resuscitated New Hampshire, which has more modems per household than any state besides Alaska. Today, on Main Street in Nashua, mom-and-pop consulting companies and coffee bars line gentrified blocks decorated with restored fountains and new flower beds. …

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