NASHUA, N.H. -- Like many New Hampshire voters, Dave Montgomery considers himself a dyed-in-the-wool independent -- which in this state means he can vote in either the Republican or Democratic presidential primary when he goes to the polls Jan. 8.
This year, the semi-retired school bus driver from Milford finds himself torn between two candidates, one from each party: Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
Montgomery likes McCain, he said, because "he seems to be enough of a rebel." He likes Obama for pretty much the same reason -- because he seems to be "his own man."
"I think either one of them could do the job," he said.
Independents like Montgomery may be the decisive factor for both major parties when New Hampshire holds the nation's first primary next week, hot on the heel's of Iowa's caucuses on Thursday. And the choices these nonaligned New Hampshire voters make almost assuredly will shape the nation's later primary races.
"This big group in the middle . . . has a chance to really transform the election," said Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist who is advising former Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.). Describing the efforts to woo independents, he added: "It's more like a general election here."
If Obama bests national front runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), he probably will owe his New Hampshire victory to independents, a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll suggested last week.
Among the state's registered Democrats, the survey found Clinton led Obama, 35% to 28%. But among independents who plan to vote in the Democratic primary, Obama led, 37% to 24% -- turning the contest into a virtual tie.
In a sense, a win for Obama would be a mirror image of McCain's primary victory in 2000, when he derailed GOP front- runner George W. Bush, largely because New Hampshire independents flocked to his side. Bush went on to win the nomination by rallying party regulars in later primaries -- a strategy Clinton no doubt would pursue.
And Obama's strength among independents now looms as a problem for McCain.
The Republican's campaign, after struggling mightily this year, has regained some of its footing and is hoping a New Hampshire win could propel him to success in later primaries. But he may fall short in the Granite State, in part because so many independents are choosing Obama.
The Times/Bloomberg poll found that among New Hampshire independents who have chosen the party primary in which they will cast a ballot, 61% said they planned to vote in the Democratic race, 39% in the GOP contest. And among those who have decided whom they will support, more than twice as many said they planned to back Obama, compared to McCain.
These voters include retiree Stephen Winship, 88, who plans to vote for Obama.
Winship said he supported McCain eight years ago "because he was candid," but won't do so now, in part because he disagrees with him over the Iraq war. McCain "has a conservative frame of mind and military background, so I think he would very much like to see this succeed," Winship said. "I think we need to get out."
Winship's shift reflects a broader trend among New Hampshire independents: Over the last eight years, they have drifted to the left.
On major issues, the Times/Bloomberg poll found that the state's independents tended to agree with Democrats more than with Republicans. For instance, asked to name the issues they considered top priorities, independents most frequently cited Iraq, healthcare and the economy -- the same ones that dominated among Democrats. The state's Republicans, by contrast, cited illegal immigration and national security first, followed by the economy and Iraq.
On Iraq, 74% of independents said they favored withdrawing U.S. troops within a year -- a view shared by 98% of Democrats, but just 33% of Republicans.
Independents often have had an outsized effect in New Hampshire's presidential primaries. In 1992, they bolstered Republican Patrick J. Buchanan to a strong second place that embarrassed President George H.W. Bush. And in 1996, they were key to Buchanan edging then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), the front-runner who went on to claim the GOP nomination.
The more pronounced Democratic tilt among the state's independents surfaced in 2004, when they helped the party's presidential candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, carry New Hampshire's electoral votes in the general election.
The change was more marked in what Republicans here call "the 2006 tsunami" that saw Democrats capture both houses of the New Hampshire Legislature for the first time in 132 years and sweep out two incumbent GOP members of Congress.
Obama and McCain, as they have courted New Hampshire independents of late, are acutely aware that they are competing not only with rivals in their own parties, but with each other.
One of Obama's final New Hampshire stops before focusing on Iowa was in Exeter, which claims to be the birthplace of the Republican Party. He met with a small group of undeclared voters and clearly sought to touch on themes that would appeal to them.
"My goal is to campaign in a way that taps into independents, that taps into common sense and pragmatism, that doesn't demonize anybody out there," he said. "In that way I hope I can create a working majority for change."
McCain frequently highlights his ability to work with a Democratic majority in Congress, a message more pleasing to centrists than partisan Republicans.
At a recent visit to a high-tech company in Salem -- shortly after McCain was endorsed by Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat-turned-independent -- he bragged that he could march into the office of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and say, "Harry, let's sit down and fix Social Security."
McCain told reporters after the event that he sensed "some movement" among independents, but acknowledged that he was not sure whether it was "wishful thinking or reality."
His advisors acknowledge that independents, despite his courtship, are unlikely to flock to the current McCain campaign in the massive numbers that marked the 2000 vote. But the McCain camp can live with that.
"The last time, when [undeclared voters] moved as a pack, it meant we won by 19 [percentage] points," said McCain advisor Charles Black. "We just want to win by one point."
In conversations with voters, it is clear that McCain's strong support for an open-ended commitment of U.S. troops to Iraq has alienated some independents.
Power company lineman Brad Soucie, 32, of Canterbury said he would have been "a McCain man, no questions asked," in another election year. "I just think with McCain, there might be a little too much more of the same. . . . The big chest, kind of world-police mentality," said Soucie, a relative newcomer to the state who had not decided on a candidate.
For others, the Democratic field is more exciting.
Carol Walker Aten, who heads an Exeter nonprofit, says she still admires McCain's independence, which drew her to him in 2000. But she had narrowed her choice to Democrats Obama and former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina. "We really need a change," she said.
Indra Edmonds, 40, a stay-at-home mom who voted for McCain in 2000, said, "He's not the same person" now.
"He struck me as the guy out to meet America on his bus the first time around," said Edmonds, who lives in Strafford. "This time around, he's using different tactics. He doesn't seem as enthusiastic and fresh."
She backs Obama, saying he's "younger, he's still more positive and he hasn't been there so long that he's bitter or negative."
She said she devoured Obama's book, "The Audacity of Hope," as she had McCain's autobiography -- and found similarities between the two. "I like their character; they're not big-government people," she said.
Though she was not budging from Obama, she added that, when the New Hampshire primary is over, "if it comes down to McCain versus a different Democrat, I'm back with McCain."