McCain and Obama looking good in New Hampshire

'Maverick' candidates increasingly popular in presidential primaries.

obama victory 224.88 (photo credit: )
obama victory 224.88
(photo credit: )
Back home after completing three tours in the Middle East, one special-ops army officer decided to continue serving his country by working in Washington. The experience left the 33-year-old, who gave only his first name, Will, deeply discouraged. Or as he put it, "It was the most frustrating thing I've seen - since Iraq." His time on Capitol Hill convinced him that his political priority was to find someone who shunned "the politics of tear your opponent down" that he saw there, and that led him to back Republican John McCain, the Arizona senator who spent five years and six months as a POW in Vietnam. He chose McCain for the same reasons that many independent voters, who were seen as key to determining the winners in the country's first primary, have backed the naval pilot-turned-legislator, giving him what appeared to be an edge as the public headed to the voting booth Tuesday and positioning him to become the frontrunner in the Republican race. They were also the same reasons that Barack Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois, seemed to be cruising towards a victory as The Jerusalem Post went to press. "He's able to unite a divided country right now and bring us together. People are tired of us-versus-them politics," the former army officer said of McCain, a candidate labeled a maverick for being willing to take on elements in his own party and reach across the aisle. Last month, Connecticut Senator Joseph Lieberman, who ran for vice president on the Democratic ticket in 2000, endorsed him and came to campaign for him in New Hampshire. Lieberman wasn't the only one. Will himself also came up from DC to urge voters to choose McCain. And like Lieberman, Will has long considered himself a Democrat. McCain's personal qualities and experiences - and his support for continuing the Iraq war until the situation there has been stabilized - convinced him to back McCain. But Will said that in the next election he might chose Obama, once he has more experience. That these two candidates - one who has made a career as a conservative from the Southwest and the other a liberal from the urban North - attract the same voters formed a central tension in Tuesday's primary battle. In fact, analysts estimated that McCain could be on shaky ground because of Obama's appeal. "Obama determines how John McCain does. Obama is the darling of independents right now, and the better he does, the worse McCain does," said political pollster Frank Luntz, who has worked for the Republican party but is not affiliated with any candidate this year. Despite their differences, he explained, "They are mavericks, and New Hampshire is a maverick state. Both are independents, and New Hampshire is an independent state." He concluded that both "are the most challenging to the status quo." The fact that voters are vacillating between the two underscores the importance to campaigns of personal qualities and the philosophies embodied by the candidates. It has hurt New York Senator Hillary Clinton, who has run on her record and positioned herself as the incumbent, and was expected to lose in New Hampshire. It has also dented the standing of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, whose money and campaign organization have led some voters to consider him the establishment candidate. Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, who trounced Romney to win Iowa last Thursday, was doing far worse in the polls because his appeal as a former Baptist minister running on Christian values was limited in New Hampshire, a state far north of the Bible Belt, though he, too, has benefited from being perceived as a Washington outsider. Many voters for former North Carolina senator John Edwards said they were voting for him because he was best positioned to take on beltway politics, but he was expected to finish a distant third among Democrats. Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York City, was also expected to fare poorly. A favorite of Republican Jews, Giuliani has mostly focused on the large, more liberal primary states such as New York, California and Illinois slated to vote February 5. Luntz said that how he does in New Hampshire won't affect how he does overall since the race that matters for him - Florida - follows soon after. But New Hampshire pollster R. Kelly Myers said Giuliani made a "strategic blunder" when he decided to focus on the big states. It made sense for Giuliani not to participate in Iowa, which was much more likely to go for a conservative candidate like Huckabee, said Myers. But he should have focused his energies on New Hampshire, where Myers believes voters would have warmed up to him. He lost, he said, what would have been a "natural niche" of support, in a state where showing up matters. He noted that perception could be more important than raw results, and the winners and second-place finishers alike hope to use New Hampshire to propel them to victory further down the road. Other states, though, won't have had the same amount of time to inspect the candidates up close like that provided by the small state of New Hampshire, which has hosted hundreds of candidate visits in the run-up to the primary. In fact, in deciding between McCain and Obama, one Nashua, New Hampshire voter determined that she hadn't seen enough of Obama on the trail to back him. "Obama is certainly very intriguing. I just think I need to know more about him before I could cast a vote for him," she said, declining to give her name. "He hasn't been tested enough in this grueling campaign yet." Tovah Lazaroff contributed to this report.