Polls say Howard Dean isn't the first choice of New Hampshire Democrats, but the former Vermont governor is doing well among a tantalizing voting bloc in the state's closely watched presidential primary: independents.

A recent American Research Group poll showed Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry leading among likely voters in the Democratic primary, with 27 percent to Dean's 15 percent.

But Dean had a slight edge among the 38 percent of registered New Hampshire voters who identify themselves as independents - and the state lets independents vote in either party's primary.

The numbers don't mean much with the primary a year away. But Dean hopes to emulate Arizona Sen. John McCain, who rode broad independent support to an 18-point win over George W. Bush in the 2000 Republican primary.

"What people liked about John McCain they will like about me," Dean said during a recent stop in Concord. "With me, what you see is what you get. And you're not going to like every bit of it, but you're always going to know where I stand and why I stand there."

Nearly one-third of those who voted in both of the 2000 primaries were independents. Among independents who voted Republican, more than 60 percent chose McCain. Bill Bradley had solid support from independents in the Democratic primary, but lost to Al Gore.

Dante Scala, a political scientist at Saint Anselm College, said no Democrat has caught fire yet the way McCain did in 2000. But Scala said it's early.

"At this stage in '99, even John McCain wasn't John McCain," Scala said. "He was just another candidate."

The American Research telephone poll of 600 registered Democrats and undeclared voters in New Hampshire who said they vote in most Democratic primary elections was conducted Jan. 7 through Jan. 10. It had a sampling margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.