Why Obama can't take New Hampshire for granted.

A guide to the swing states.
Sept. 29 2008 5:02 PM

Don't Take It for Granite

Democrats control New Hampshire, but Obama still faces a tough battle here.

Read the rest of the Swingers  series.

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Yet there's another, simpler explanation for McCain's popularity here: "His willingness to work his butt off," says David Carney, White House political director for the first President Bush and a Hancock resident. Since 1999, McCain has more or less made New Hampshire his second home (though he probably wouldn't put it that way, his home-count being a touchy subject). Instead, McCain is fond of telling a joke starring his late friend Mo Udall, another Arizona member of Congress who made a bid for the White House: "Guy in Concord says to another guy in Concord, 'What do you think of Mo Udall for president?' Other guy says, 'I don't know, I only met him twice.' "

As McCain says, it's funny because it's true: New Hampshire's primary has outsized importance, and voters here are used to getting extra-special attention. McCain has been ubiquitous. In the run-up to the 2000 primary, he conducted more than 100 town hall meetings; in an effort to save his candidacy in 2008, he held 101 more. Even Arnie Arnesen, host of the liberal local talk show Political Chowder, praises McCain for how hard he's campaigned in the state and for his willingness to go on shows like hers. "I'd probably be invited to McCain's inaugural and not Barack's," Arnesen says with a laugh. "And I don't want him to win and he knows I don't want him to win."

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A couple of weekends ago, Obama was in the state for two public events, an evening rally in Concord, the state capital, and a Saturday-morning gathering in Manchester, its biggest city. (With 109,000 residents, it's hardly a metropolis, but compared with the sleepy villages that dot the rest of the state, it might as well be Vegas—which is what locals call it.) That same weekend, McCain did a toe-touch in New Hampshire, making a quick Sunday-afternoon visit to the small town of Loudon. Small, that is, except for the two weekends a year when its population jumps from about 4,500 to 150,000, as RVs full of NASCAR fans hitch up at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

I'm only an occasional visitor to New Hampshire, but this was the second time I'd seen McCain at the same event—he'd shown up for the 2006 race, too. McCain mingled with voters in the infield and made brief remarks with Cindy standing at his side. ("That's his wife?" I overheard a Bobby Labonte fan ask his buddy. "Good for him.") The McCains got a warm welcome, though the fans I was standing with were clearly more excited to spot NASCAR legend "King" Richard Petty loping around the dais than to see the senior senator from Arizona on top of it.

Eight years of campaigning here is a lot, but will it be enough? No one I spoke with, Democrat or Republican, was willing to venture a guess at who will prevail in New Hampshire, and the polls show the candidates in a dead heat. (Same goes for the other big contest in the state, between incumbent Republican Sen. John Sununu and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.) In the end, the race may come down to a force beyond the candidates' control—demographics.

Southern New Hampshire has become the Republican stronghold, thanks to an influx of GOP voters from an unlikely source: Massachusetts. According to UNH's Smith, the Massachusetts transplants who have settled in places like Nashua and Salem tend to cite three reasons for moving: cheaper housing, lower taxes, and fewer liberals. But at the same time, retirees from places like New York and Connecticut are moving to New Hampshire's Lakes Region, and white-collar workers are moving from elsewhere in blue New England to take jobs in the state's expanding service sector. These voters may not have been around to attend multiple McCain town meetings. They may have moved to New Hampshire not in pursuit of Liberty but because they got a job at Fidelity. And they're probably going to vote for Barack Obama.