MANCHESTER, N.H. – New Hampshire is known for turning Republican presidential primaries upside down.
It could happen again this year.
"We're a little tiny state, but we get to go out and rub shoulders with all of the candidates, and be a big part of the big decision," says Cindy Horvath, 46, an undecided Republican voter from Somersworth.
And, she added, have a big impact.
Polls show a tight race for the GOP nomination in the state. Mitt Romney, Rudy Giuliani and John McCain are in strong contention. Fred Thompson, Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul could complicate an already muddled contest.
—For starters, a date for the primary hasn't even been set.
—Independents can vote in either party's primary, making them a wild card.
—Many declared Republicans say they're still undecided.
—Paul, a libertarian-leaning long-shot Texas congressman, could emerge as a serious contender in the "Live Free or Die" state.
The state's recent history is rife with Republican primary voters giving non-establishment candidates a boost, and rocking the race.
In the last contested GOP primary, in 2000, underdog McCain camped out in New Hampshire and soared to a stunning 19 percentage point win over establishment favorite George W. Bush. In 1996, conservative pundit Patrick Buchanan won the primary over Bob Dole with 27 percent of the vote. Four years earlier, Buchanan took 37 percent, but he lost both the New Hampshire primary and the nomination to the incumbent president, George H.W. Bush.
This time, New Hampshire is fertile ground for several candidates, and the multi-person field has fractured the GOP primary electorate. In a state traditionally home to more economic conservatives than social conservatives, everyone is pitching a message of low taxes and restrained spending.
"It's no different than past cycles," said Fergus Cullen, the state GOP chairman. "There are few states where all the candidates are coming to campaign and are fully resourced. Today, we have five or six candidates that are playing hard here."
They haven't begun to run negative TV or radio ads. But hard-hitting commercials are all but certain given the wide-open race in an early voting state that historically has tolerated negative campaigning more so than others.
Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, has a slight edge in most polls. He could be considered a part-time resident of the state considering his lakeside vacation home and his weekly campaigning here. The multimillionaire venture capitalist has emphasized his management experience in the public, private and nonprofit sectors. He's spent about $4 million on TV and radio ads here since going on the air early this year.
Giulaini, the former New York mayor leading in national polls, is playing to win after months of focusing elsewhere. He has made eight recent visits and has flooded mailboxes with literature while spending some $300,000 on radio ads. He's increasing his state staff and courting the Seacoast region that's home to moderates and independents. A fellow Northeasterner, he's known for putting New York back on solid financial ground and for his resolve following the Sept. 11 attacks.
McCain, the Arizona senator, remains a favorite among a segment of hard-core supporters from 2000. But his bid back then was fueled in part by independents, and their support for him this time is not guaranteed. Still, McCain, a longtime deficit hawk who rails against runaway spending, is looking to New Hampshire for a comeback after summer stumbles. He's running TV ads emphasizing his military service as surveys show an uptick in support.
Among the others, Thompson, the actor and ex-senator from Tennessee, promised to be in New Hampshire "early and often" but has visited the state only three times in two months. He trails his top rivals in polls and organization. Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor, has a network of grass-roots support but lacks money. Paul could be a force; he opposes the Iraq war, and his libertarian bent resonates here. He's running TV and radio ads and just raised $4.3 million in one day.
New Hampshire has held the first-in-the-nation primary since 1920, and Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who has sole discretion over setting the date, is fiercely defending that history this year. Jan. 8 has emerged as the most likely day, but Gardner refuses to rule out a mid-December primary.
Campaigns are anxiously awaiting his decision, which is expected soon, and also are trying to gauge the voting behavior of influential independent voters, dubbed "undeclareds" in New Hampshire.
Surveys show roughly 4 out of 10 of these voters say they plan to vote in the Democratic primary, and about the same number say they aren't sure which ballot they will pick up on primary day. Only 19 percent are planning to vote in the Republican primary, according to a recent poll by Saint Anselm College's Institute of Politics.
Also, many Republicans say they are undecided or willing to change their minds.
A stay-at-home mother of four boys in nearby Bedford, Shannon McGinley typifies the indecisiveness. One day this week, she zipped from a breakfast-time Thompson appearance to a midmorning Giuliani speech — but said she was leaning toward Huckabee.
"I'm still shopping," said McGinley, 37. "You have to be both bright and a communicator. Sometimes that doesn't always happen in politics."
At the Bedford Village Inn as Thompson prepared to speak, Ray Powles of Goffstown called himself "still hovering" and said he was partial to Romney, Thompson and Giuliani.
"I'd like to see a candidate that addresses some of the issues, that's going to help try to strengthen the country, shore it up and not set us back," said the 37-year-old Republican who works at a cable company.
Waiting to hear from Giuliani in Manchester, Noel Rainville, a 65-year-old retiree from Bedford, said she's taking her time deciding who to support after voting for Bush in the 2000 primary and ending up disappointed.
"I never did realize we would be in this situation," she said of the Iraq war. This time, Rainville said, she is leaning toward Giuliani and McCain. "They have served well in the positions that they have been in. To me, they're very honest. And I'm not sure the others are."