— Women returned solidly to Hillary Rodham Clinton's side, helping her overcome Barack Obama's advantage among the large independent bloc in New Hampshire's Democratic primary, an exit poll found. John McCain's experience, reputation for "straight talk" and appeal among moderates helped him beat Mitt Romney in the Republican contest.
Clinton _ vying to become the first female president _ won 46 percent of the women's vote while Obama got only 34 percent, according to the survey conducted for The Associated Press and television networks. Obama beat Clinton by a comparable margin among men, but women voters outnumbered men in the Democratic primary by 57-43.
The gender gap was considerably wider than in last week's Iowa caucuses, where Obama beat Clinton soundly among men and narrowly among women.
Obama was as strong in New Hampshire as in Iowa among the youngest voters, winning 60 percent of those age 18-24. But Clinton ran about even with Obama among 25- to 29-year-olds in New Hampshire; in Iowa more than half of that age group backed Obama. And Clinton prevailed Tuesday among the largest age group, 40-49, and seniors.
Clinton also won sufficient backing as a candidate of change _ blunting Obama's advantage on a central thrust of his campaign _ and combined it with support for her experience and empathy to give her a narrow but surprising victory.
Asked which of four personal qualities was most important to their vote, 54 percent of Democratic primary voters picked "can bring about needed change." Obama won 55 percent of that group but Clinton got 28 percent. But among the one in five who picked "has the right experience," Clinton trounced Obama 71 percent to 5 percent.
She also ran about even with John Edwards among voters who emphasized that a candidate "cares about people like me" while Obama trailed on that score. Few voters acknowledge electability as a top factor.
Registered independents, who could choose between the two parties' primaries, had been seen as a key to victory in both races in New Hampshire but proved to be more of a factor on the Republican side. The exit polls found six in 10 independents opted for the Democratic contest and Obama led among them, but voters who usually consider themselves Democrats went for Clinton over Obama by 10 points after splitting evenly between the two in Iowa.
A third of Republican primary voters called themselves independent, and McCain easily outpaced Romney among them.
Romney beat McCain 38 percent to 30 percent among the more than half of Republican primary voters who called themselves conservative, but McCain won nearly 2-to-1 among moderates and the 11 percent who were self-described liberals,
Three in 10 Republican voters said it was most important to them that a candidate "says what he believes" and a quarter picked "has the right experience." McCain won about half the votes of both groups.
More than a third of Republican voters said the top quality was that the candidate "shares my values," and Romney led among that group with 38 percent. About 20 percent of these values voters favored Mike Huckabee.
Huckabee could not repeat his success last week in the Iowa caucuses because there were far fewer voters in New Hampshire among his strongest groups: evangelical Christians and those who said it matters a great deal that a candidate shares their religious beliefs. Romney also beat Huckabee 2-to-1 in New Hampshire among very conservative voters, who had favored Huckabee in Iowa.
Immigration brought out sharp contrasts in the Republican race.
Three in 10 GOP primary voters would offer illegal immigrants a chance at citizenship and more than half of them supported McCain, who had plummeted in preprimary polls last summer for supporting that idea. Nearly a quarter favored allowing illegal immigrants to stay as temporary workers and McCain narrowly prevailed among them over Romney, who has taken a tougher line and attacked McCain on the issue. But McCain lagged well behind Romney among the nearly half of Republican voters who said illegal immigrants should be deported.
McCain also found greater support among GOP voters who disapprove of the war in Iraq. Romney and McCain ran about even among the six in 10 who approve the war.
The results are from exit polls Tuesday in 50 precincts around New Hampshire for The Associated Press and television networks by Edison Media Research and Mitofsky International. The Democratic primary survey interviewed 1,956 voters, the Republican primary poll 1,521. The sampling error margin was plus or minus 4 percentage points for each exit poll.