Thursday, January 3, 2008

McCain's bet on N.H. paying off

NASHUA, NH - With the state virtually to himself, Sen. John McCain appears on the verge of seizing control of New Hampshire's Republican primary as he rides momentum that may have been partially fueled by the decision of his main rivals to focus their resources elsewhere in recent days.

McCain, who won a dramatic primary victory here eight years ago over George W. Bush, made a decision to spend the bulk of his time after the Christmas holidays on the Granite State, while a key rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, opted to pull out all the stops for Thursday's Iowa caucuses.

Another top GOP candidate, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani made a feint late in the fall towards competing in New Hampshire. But he has subsequently deemphasized the state while placing a major wager on the Jan. 29 primary in Florida, where he has been spending valuable campaign time.

The result, according to GOP activists here, has been an erosion of Giuliani's support in New Hampshire, with McCain reaping the benefits. Two polls released on Wednesday show McCain making major gains among likely GOP voters in Tuesday's primary, while Giuliani's support slackens.

Perhaps in an effort to stem that erosion, Giuliani made a quick campaign stop here Wednesday afternoon with another event scheduled for Thursday morning before flying on to Florida.

In one survey by CNN in partnership with WMUR, a local television station, McCain is now tied with Romney, with each claiming 29 percent of the vote. The poll was conducted by the University of New Hampshire. While the poll showed McCain picking up 10 percentage points during December, Giuliani's support dropped by 7 points.

In a second poll by Suffolk University and WHDH-TV, McCain is shown as leading Romney, 31 percent to 25 percent.

-- Finlay Lewis, Copley News Service

On New Year's Eve, McCain methodically worked his way through a demanding schedule with five meet-and-greet events. The next day, a holiday for most Americans, he braved a snowstorm to shake hands in a diner in Tilton. That caused at least one longtime Democrat, John Patrick Kelly, a retired Boston firefighter, to declare he just might vote for McCain on Tuesday.

"Man, he came through this mess," said Kelly, now a Tilton resident. "You gotta admit it: he's a pretty stand up guy."

A few booths away, Robert Haynes, pastor of an evangelical church in Manchester, reacted in much the same way. He said he was still weighing a vote for Romney but that the scales were shifting in McCain's favor.

"I'm glad to meet John face to face - to thank him for supporting the troops," said Haynes, a National Guardsman who was deployed to the Persian Gulf for the 1991 war to expel Iraq from Kuwait and then in 2004 to Iraq as a platoon sergeant for an MP unit.

"I can respect a man who stands by his convictions, regardless of the polls," said Haynes, 40. "That's a quality every president needs to have."

Pollster Dick Bennett called McCain's decision to concentrate on New Hampshire "brilliant," and added, "He had this magic eight years ago. He didn't lose it. But people are now paying attention to him again. He is in his element."

Said Fergus Cullen, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party, "McCain has been here, working his butt off -- doing tons of town hall meetings and speaking to thousands of voters -- and in the process dominating local earned media coverage as well at a time when other candidates were by and large out of state."

Posted by Michael Smolens January 2, 2008 03:22 PM

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