DOVER, N.H. — When it comes to the politics of 2012, New Hampshire is a state of uncertainty.
From Keene in the southwest corner to Dover on the other side of the state, voters are largely unenthusiastic about President Barack Obama, but they're not crazy about the potential Republican challengers either.
Folks here routinely say they're fed up with everyone and don't know what to do when they go to the polls next year.
"The candidates all say what people want to hear, and then nothing gets done," said Debbie Babineau, a Lebanon property manager.
Voters in this state of 1.3 million people are closely watched as reflective of the national mood. New Hampshire traditionally holds the nation's first presidential primary, meaning that people here get to see and even know potential presidents in person, allowing them to take the measure of their leaders in ways that are available to few other Americans.
New Hampshire also features a relatively prosperous white-collar middle and upper class, generally in its southern tier outside Boston, along with more blue-collar, rural and small-town populations sprinkled throughout the state.
Since 1980, New Hampshire also usually has gone as America goes in the November general election, giving its electoral votes to the presidential winner all but once. The exception was 2004, when Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, well-known since he was from a neighboring state, eked out a win here but fell short nationally.
It's the first-primary status, though, that makes these voters especially savvy.
Corporate lawyer Claire Howard, in the last two weeks, asked former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney a question about health care at an Exeter economic forum and watched Texas Gov. Rick Perry at the Bedford "Politics & Eggs" breakfast with business leaders.
Alex and Leigh Anne Foster of Lee aim to see all the candidates; they've seen every president since Bill Clinton. Alex, a computer-software company owner, is intrigued by Perry and his conservative ideology. Leigh Anne, a health care official, likes Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann for the same reason, adding that "she's tenacious."
It's not unusual to see people such as Jim Marshburn, a Rochester school bus driver, who took a notebook to a Dover town hall meeting last week hosted by Romney. Marshburn planned to review his notes at home later, checking them against Romney's record.
People weigh choices carefully, one reason that hard-core ideological groups have less sway here. The state has a history of deflating candidates who ride in fresh from ideology-fueled Iowa caucus victories, and all but ending their presidential bids.
In 2008, for instance, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee got no momentum from his Iowa win and finished a distant third here, with 11 percent.
These voters understand nuance.
"You're never going to find anybody who agrees with you about everything," said Brian Stowell, who owns a Claremont custom cabinet-making company.
Their heightened scrutiny helps make 2012 difficult to handicap. In the last University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll, taken June 21 to July 1, Romney led Obama by 47 to 43 percent. In November 2008, Obama beat Arizona Sen. John McCain, the Republican nominee, by 9.6 percentage points. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 3.6 percentage points.
Romney remains the Republican favorite in this state. He has a home in Wolfeboro and he governed Massachusetts from 2003 to 2007. But he's no shoo-in, as the University of New Hampshire poll found that only 8 percent of Republican primary voters had made definite choices.
A lot of variables are still in play.
The biggest is turnout; 392,000 state voters are "undeclared," or independent, meaning that they can vote in either party's primary. Some 264,000 residents are registered Democrats and 272,000 are registered Republicans. In the past, independents helped boost more mainstream Republican candidates, such as 2000 and 2008 winner McCain, over more ideological alternatives, such as Huckabee.
This time, the turnout mystery involves whether folks who voted for Obama in 2008 will cross over to vote in the GOP primary, and if so, for whom.
Disappointment with Obama is easy to find, even among those who say they still support him.
"He's getting closer to being the lesser of two evils," said Steve Bos, a policy planner with the state Education Department in Lebanon.
Chances are they won't vote Republican, but there's little evidence that activist Democrats will be urging others to vote for Obama, and that could mean a boost for a Republican come November 2012.
"People are disappointed," said state Democratic Rep. Steve Lindsey of Keene. "The economy's not helping. The Christmas shopping season will determine Obama's chances here."
Right after that, perhaps in January, the presidential primary is likely to occur.
Voters here feel the shaky economy, though not as critically as elsewhere. The state's unemployment rate — 5.2 percent in July — has been considerably lower than the nation's — 9.1 percent in July — but well above its pre-2008 recession lows.
Romney would seem the obvious choice for these voters, as long as he stays on his current course of talking largely about economics and avoiding much discussion of social issues.
"He's got to be seen as the champion of the moderate, centrist wing of the Republican Party," said Dante Scala, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.
Romney, like others, also has to offer detailed answers to vexing questions. At the Exeter town hall meeting, Bob Vecchio, a retired Exeter financial officer, asked Romney his plans for Social Security and Medicare, and how they'd factor into his plan to cut the federal debt.
Romney pledged not to touch the programs for those who already have retired or are nearing retirement, but he was vague about other details, saying only that "we want to make sure the promises we're making to the next generation are promises we can keep."
"He could have been more specific," Vecchio said, though he added that he thought Romney could beat Obama.
Jaelle Johnson, a Rollinsford teacher, watches candidates and tries to discern who'll make the best leader. "It's an instinctive thing. I'm asking myself, 'Can you define your vision? Motivate your team? Can you lead the country?' " she asked. "Obama has the self-confidence but I don't think he has those skills needed to lead."
She wants not only details, but also a sense that whoever's elected next year will offer the kind of hope that Obama promised three years ago.
"Right now it doesn't seem to matter who you vote for," said Steve Kelley of Plainfield. "Obama tried to do a lot, but his hands are tied by Congress."
They haven't yet made up their minds, but these people will vote. Just give them time.
"Romney says what needs to be said about the economy, and I like that. But I don't know much about Perry," said Dana Dodge, a manager of a Claremont fly-fishing business. "We'll see. We have time."
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