Thursday, January 18, 2007

McCain no longer rocks in Granite State

As Mitt, Hillary, Barack and a dozen others jump into the presidential stampede, something interesting is happening in New Hampshire.

For seven years, conventional wisdom has said that the state’s pivotal independent voters would line up behind maverick Sen. John McCain, as they did so famously in the 2000 GOP primary. But new polling data, to be released later this week, will suggest that might no longer be the case.

Manchester, N.H.-based American Research Group finds that McCain’s popularity among New Hampshire’s independent voters has collapsed.

“John McCain is tanking,” says ARG president Dick Bennett. “That’s the big thing [we’re finding]. In New Hampshire a year ago he got 49 percent among independent voters. That number’s way down, to 29 percent now.”

American Research Group, which is New Hampshire’s leading polling company and has been operating in the state since 1976, polled 1,200 likely Granite State voters in the survey.

Bennett says ARG is finding a similar trend in other states polled, including early primary battlegrounds like Iowa and Nevada. “We’re finding this everywhere,” he says.

The main reason isn’t hard to find: His hawkish stance on the Iraq war, which is tying him ever more closely to an unpopular president. “Independent support for McCain is evaporating because they view him as tied to Bush,” says Bennett.

The McCain camp yesterday said the senator, who is pushing for a bigger troop surge in Iraq than the president, will stick by his guns. “He has been and will remain committed to achieving victory in Iraq,” a spokesman said.

New Hampshire is among the states that allow independents to vote in either party’s primary. It was their support that gave McCain his huge primary victory there over then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush in 2000.

If the senator is losing that base, it opens the GOP race to other challengers. And it weakens his strongest pitch to Republican die-hards - namely that his appeal to independents makes him the most electable candidate in the general election.

“It’s significant that McCain is going down rather than up at this critical juncture in the early maneuvering,” comments Larry Sabato, who chairs the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. “It suggests that, contrary to conventional wisdom, John McCain may not be secure as the GOP front-runner. But a lot can change.”

The big question for 2008: Where will all those independents end up?

Mitt Romney could have made a strong pitch to them if he weren’t instead running to the right. ARG’s poll finds some like Rudy Giuliani. Others, switching sides, are warming to Democratic Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

But most are now up for grabs.


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