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Could New Hampshire Decide the Election?

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Joe Biden visits today. Yesterday, Barack Obama's campaign announced that he will visit later this week. And John McCain is scheduled to arrive this weekend.

The evidence is unmistakable: there are big stakes in tiny New Hampshire, and the campaigns are now recognizing it.

As a last-stand proving ground where campaigns go to live or die, New Hampshire may in fact host a Round 2 in '08.

"I don't think it could be a bigger battleground state," Sandra Abrevaya, communications director for Obama in New Hampshire, said in a phone interview. "I think that this week's (candidate) schedule alone speaks to how important it is."

The Obama campaign is planning to flood the state with supporters from around the Northeast, which effectively has no other fights available for Democratic activists.

In the primaries, the state revived an almost-buried John McCain candidacy. And it almost derailed Barack Obama's. Now, in perhaps one of the more under-appreciated subplots, the general election could turn on the Granite State's outcome, too.

The latest Rasmussen poll puts the Obama-McCain race virtually even, with Obama's double-digit lead now erased. New Hampshire remains a rare 2004 blue state that could, legitimately, go red.

Of course, the projected electoral map shows battlegrounds in some behemoths, including Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. A string of wins by one campaign or the other may very well make New Hampshire, with its four electoral votes, ultimately irrelevant.

But going strictly by poll numbers right now, with toss-ups called along the narrowest of margins, Obama hypothetically beats McCain 273 to 265, according to an analysis by RealClearPolitics.
That calculation includes an Obama win in New Hampshire. Flip that, and you have an electoral college tie.

Given the same map, other plausible combinations of the swing states -- i.e., McCain wins Michigan, Obama pulls out Virginia -- put New Hampshire in an important position. In that scenario, in fact, a McCain win there would spell game over.

"New Hampshire's four votes could come in handy for somebody, that's for sure," Dante Scala, political scientist at the University of New Hampshire, said in an interview. "It's not going the (Democratic) way of Maine and Vermont. It remains a bellweather."

A strange bellweather, indeed: the state has a twisted recent voting history that is anything but predictable. In 2000, Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in New Hampshire, courtesy of disaffected Ralph Nader voters. In 2004, John Kerry narrowly nosed out Bush there. New Hampshire is unique in that particular red-blue shift, during those four polarized, war-ridden years of American history.

And in 2006, it was blue tide fever all over New Hampshire, with Democrats keeping the governorship, winning two Congressional races, and taking both houses of the state legislature.

The topsy-turvy nature of it gets even weirder when one looks at the high-profile Senate race between Republican incumbent John Sununu and former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Though Shaheen's formerly big lead has dwindled some, it remains a real possibility that the GOP's top of the ticket could carry the state, and yet the Democrat could steal the Senate seat. (A political parlor game: Where else in the country could that happen?)

The Senate race, of course, is also a priority for both parties, a pivotal test of whether moderate GOP legislators can survive in some northern and western states, and Democrats can widen their narrow majority in that chamber.

As mentioned, McCain has staged two dramatic primary wins in New Hampshire, and he has held dozens of town meetings around the state in this election cycle. Simply speaking, voters know McCain well. They have seen him in hamlets and villages far and yon, from Portsmouth to Lebanon. The maverick image -- however mythical in actual fact -- is a familiar one to New Hampshire voters. It helped McCain trounce Bush by 18 points in 2000.

To boot, many Granite State independents gave their hearts to Hillary Clinton, not Obama, in the primary.

Scala said voters' level of familiarity with McCain could prove important, given that Obama -- who has not visited since the beginning of the summer - is still establishing his biography for voters. He also said that base conservatives candidates are energized by McCain's vice presidential pick, with some GOP local and state candidates on the trail actively referring to themselves as "Sarah Palin Republicans."

"I suspect she's playing well here, and it's kind of reminding people of the old McCain," Scala said, adding that support for McCain had been somewhat dutiful until the Palin pick.

Some of McCain's support will come from GOP and Republican-leaning moderates -- the hardcore "McCainiacs" -- who think that the Bush years were a mistake, and the Senator from Arizona remains the "last best hope" to redeem the party, Scala noted.

Abrevaya said the Obama team in New Hampshire is trying to go after independent voters by conveying Obama's strong record on issues of regional importance -- for example, making sure heating oil is affordable -- and abortion rights, a position which can attract some libertarian and independent women in the "Live Free or Die" state.

Much of the race -- as is always the case with New Hampshire -- will come down to unaffiliated voters, who outnumber affiliated voters in either party individually. The parties now each claim about 31 percent of the voting public, the result of an erosion of GOP strength in recent years. According to the latest from Rasmussen, Obama still beats McCain among unaffiliated voters 42 to 34. But that's down from 50 percent for Obama in July.

If the Obama strategy is to hold all of the states John Kerry won in 2004, and hope to flip some others in the West, then New Hampshire represents a core challenge: don't lose in your own backyard. But suddenly, that tiny sliver of land in an otherwise sea of Northeast blue looks like a grinding, and perhaps decisive, contest.