Newt Gingrich
David Goldman  /  AP
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich arrives for an event in Atlanta on April 13.
updated 4/25/2011 5:26:16 PM ET 2011-04-25T21:26:16

At fundraising dinner after dinner, state Republican Party Chairman Jack Kimball earns loud applause when he declares that New Hampshire will send forward "a good strong conservative nominee for the presidency of the United States."

But it won't be just Republicans who pick a winner in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary next year.

Independent voters, who make up nearly 42 percent of registered voters in the state, can participate in either party's primary. And, given that President Barack Obama has no serious Democratic challenger, most independents are expected to cast ballots in the GOP race next February, unlike in the last presidential campaign.

That means Republican White House hopefuls who have been courting Republicans at party fundraising dinners and holding private meetings with Tea Party activists will have to branch out: beyond talking about things like the Declaration of Independence and conservative Republican talking points. They'll also have to talk to New Hampshire independents.

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Story: The 2012 GOP presidential field

"The discourse so far here in New Hampshire really mirrors the very conservative discourse we're hearing with the Tea Party and among conservative elites around the country," said political analyst Dean Spiliotes. "The question is, how much of that is going to appeal to independents?"

Independent voters in the "Live Free or Die" state are notorious for, well, being independent. And sometimes so much so that they've helped upend presidential primary contests.

Barbour's difficult path

In 2008, more chose to vote in the Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton than in the sleepier GOP contest between a slew of Republican contenders. Exit polls showed that six in 10 independents voted in the Democratic contest. Although Obama won more independent votes, they contributed to the coalition Clinton stitched together to stage a comeback victory after a disastrous Iowa defeat. Independents also were critical to Republican John McCain's victory here, which set him on the path to winning the GOP nomination.

Four years earlier, the Democratic primary took center stage because President George W. Bush faced only token opposition on the Republican ballot. More than 75 percent of the ballots cast in the New Hampshire primary that year were on the Democratic side, and according to exit polls, nearly half of those voting in the Democratic primary were registered as independents.

Heavy independent participation
That suggests potentially heavy independent participation in next year's Republican primary, which is tentatively set for Feb. 14, 2012.

Also, a University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll in February found about 40 percent of independents — or "undeclared" as they're called here — said they plan to vote in the Republican primary, about 30 percent said they plan to vote in the Democratic primary, even though it's not expected to be contested, and 30 percent weren't sure.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney led the field in that poll. But it means little; nearly 80 percent of likely GOP primary voters said they were still making up their minds. And independents tend to wait longer than others to pick a candidate, sometimes as late as Election Day.

Many Republican hopefuls, including former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, dismiss questions about whether they're focusing too much on GOP voters in the state, saying their messages will resonate because independents appreciate fiscal conservatism as much as Republicans.

In a visit to the state last week, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich ticked off the high costs of gasoline and heating oil, joblessness and budget-busting spending and said: "I think there are a lot of independent voters who have an interest in those kinds of real, substantive issues, and I would try to appeal to them" with suggested solutions.

Like Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty argues that his record on taxes and spending will appeal to independents as well as Republicans. But he says that as a former governor of a Democratic-leaning state, he has an edge over other candidates because he has proven he can reach beyond his party to win.

"I have not just the rhetoric of saying I can or will do this, but I've actually done it," Pawlenty said in a phone interview, adding that he's mindful that the New Hampshire primary will include independents. "I welcome that."

'I switch when it feels right'
Still, the challenges for the Republican candidates are great because independent voters by nature are a fickle bunch.

Just ask Ron Morse, an independent from the town of Weare.

He voted for Clinton in the 2008 primary and Obama in the general election but isn't hot on anyone this time and doesn't know what he will do come 2012.

"I switch when it feels right. Right now, I don't feel the president's doing a good job," said Morse, 60, as he had breakfast at a Manchester diner recently when Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour stopped by. "There's nobody so far that I want to vote for." He said he "definitely" wouldn't back Romney. "And definitely not that Alaskan chick," he said, referring to former Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin.

It turns out that Barbour doesn't sit well with him either; Morse said he was annoyed that Barbour brushed off his concerns about potential cuts to Medicare and Social Security.

Wayne Gagne, a co-chairman of the "New Hampshire Independents for McCain Coalition," in 2008, said last week he doesn't know which primary he'll vote in next year, though he, too, has ruled out Romney and Palin, and Gingrich, too. He thinks Obama is on the right track on health care, but he has friends who think highly of Pawlenty, and he likes the way Donald Trump thinks.

"Sometimes he thinks like me: just get it done. He's right to the point, and I like that feature in anybody, frankly," said Gagne, 60, a retired locomotive engineer from Nashua, said of Trump. "But how will he do politically in the world's problems? I don't know. Nothing impresses me yet."

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Explainer: The 2012 GOP presidential field

  • A look at the Republican candidates hoping to challenge Barack Obama in the general election.

  • Rick Perry, announced Aug. 13

    Image: Perry
    Sean Gardner  /  REUTERS
    Texas Gov. Rick Perry

    Mere hours before a major GOP debate in Iowa (and a couple of days before the high-interest Ames straw poll), the Perry camp announced that the Texas governor was all-in for 2012.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas governor.

    While some on ground in the early-caucus state criticized the distraction, strategists applauded the move and said Perry was giving Romney a run for his money.

    Slideshow: A look at Gov. Rick Perry's political career

    He may face fierce opposition from secular groups and progressives who argue that his religious rhetoric violates the separation of church and state and that his belief that some groups, such as the Boy Scouts of America, should be allowed to discriminate against gays is bigoted.

  • Jon Huntsman, announced June 21

    Image: Jon Hunt
    Mandel Ngan  /  AFP - Getty Images file
    Outgoing U.S. Ambassador to China Jon Huntsman

    Huntsman, a former governor of Utah, made his bid official on June 21 at at Liberty State Park in New Jersey.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former governor of Utah.

    He vowed to provide "leadership that knows we need more than hope" and "leadership that doesn’t promise Washington has all the solutions to our problems."

    The early days of his campaign were clouded with reports of internal discord among senior staffers.

    Slideshow: Jon Huntsman Jr.

    Huntsman, who is Mormon, worked as a missionary in Taiwan and is fluent in Mandarin. But his moderate credentials — backing civil unions for gays and the cap-and-trade energy legislation — could hurt him in a GOP primary. So could serving under Obama.

  • Michele Bachmann, announced on June 13

    Image: Michele Bachmann
    Larry Downing  /  REUTERS
    Rep. Michele Bachmann

    Born and raised in Iowa, this Tea Party favorite and Minnesota congresswoman announced during a June 13 GOP debate that she's officially in the running for the Republican nomination.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Minn. congresswoman.

    Bachmann tells The Associated Press she decided to jump into the 2012 race at this time because she believed it was "the right thing to do."

    She's been criticized for making some high-profile gaffes — among them, claiming taxpayers would be stuck with a $200 million per day tab for President Barack Obama's trip to India and identifying New Hampshire as the site of the Revolutionary War's opening shots.

    Slideshow: The political life of Michele Bachmann

    But Bachmann's proved a viable fundraiser, collecting more than $2 million in political contributions in the first 90 days of 2011 — slightly exceeding the $1.8 million Mitt Romney brought in via his PAC in the first quarter.

  • Rick Santorum, announced on June 6

    Image: Rick Santorum
    Charlie Neibergall  /  AP file
    Former Penn. Sen. Rick Santorum

    A staunch cultural conservative vehemently against abortion and gay marriage, the former Pennsylvania senator hopes to energize Republicans with a keen focus on social issues.

    He announced the launch of a presidential exploratory committee on FOX News, where he makes regular appearances. He make his run official on June 6 in Somerset, Pa., asking supporters to "Join the fight!"

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Pennsylvania senator.

    No stranger to controversy, Santorum was condemned by a wide range of groups in 2003 for equating homosexuality with incest, pedophilia and bestiality. More recently, Santorum faced criticism when he called Obama’s support for abortion rights “almost remarkable for a black man.”

    Slideshow: Rick Santorum's political life

    Since his defeat by Democrat Robert Casey in his 2006 re-election contest — by a whopping 18 percentage points — Santorum has worked as an attorney and as a think-tank contributor.

    A February straw poll at CPAC had him in twelfth place amongst Republicans with 2 percent of the vote.

  • Mitt Romney, announced on June 2

    Image: Mitt Romney
    Paul Sancya  /  AP file
    Former Massachusetts Gov. and presidential candidate Mitt Romney

    The former Massachusetts governor and 2008 presidential candidate has spent the last three years laying the foundations for another run at the White House — building a vigorous political action committee, making regular media appearances, and penning a policy-heavy book.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former Mass. governor.

    In April, he announced, via YouTube and Twitter, that he'd formed an exploratory commitee. Romney made his run official in Stratham, N.H., on June 2.

    The former CEO of consulting firm Bain & Company and the president of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Romney frequently highlights his business background as one of his main qualifications to serve as president.

    Slideshow: Mitt Romney's life in politics

    To capture the nomination, Romney will have to defend the health care overhaul he enacted during his governorship — legislation that bears similarities to the Obama-backed bill despised by many conservatives. He'll also have to overcome the perception of being a flip-flopper (like supporting abortion rights in his 1994 and 2002 bids for office, but opposing them in his '08 run).

    In the first quarter of 2011, he netted some $1.8 million through his PAC "Free and Strong America."

  • Herman Cain, announced on May 21

    Image: Herman Cain
    Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
    Talk show host Herman Cain

    Cain, an Atlanta radio host and former CEO of Godfather’s Pizza, has support from some Tea Party factions.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Atlanta radio host.

    An African-American who describes himself as a “citizen’s candidate,” he was the first Republican to form a formal presidential exploratory committee. He officially entered the race in May, telling supporters, "When we wake up and they declare the presidential results, and Herman Cain is in the White House, we'll all be able to say, free at last! Free at last! Thank God almighty, this nation is free at last, again!"

    Prior to the release of President Obama's long-form birth certificate, Cain rehashed the birther theory, telling a Florida blogger, “I respect people that believe he should prove his citizenship ... He should prove he was born in the United States of America.”

  • Ron Paul, announced on May 13

    Image: Ron Paul
    Cliff Owen  /  AP file
    Rep. Ron Paul

    In 2008, Texas congressman Ron Paul’s libertarian rallying cry — and his opposition to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars — did not fall on deaf ears. An idiosyncratic foe of the Federal Reserve and a passionate advocate for limited government, Paul mounted a presidential run that was characterized by bursts of jaw-dropping online fundraising.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the Texas congressman.

    Slideshow: Ron Paul

    He officially launched his 2012 campaign in New Hampshire, saying, ""The revolution is spreading, and the momentum is building ... Our time has come."

    In the first quarter of 2011, raked in some $3 million through his various political organizations.

  • Newt Gingrich, announced on May 11

    Image: Newt Gingrich
    John M. Heller  /  Getty Images file
    Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich

    The former speaker of the House who led the 1994 “Republican Revolution,” Gingrich remains a robust presence on the GOP stage as a prolific writer and political thinker. In recent years, Barack Obama has provided a new target for the blistering critiques Gingrich famously leveled at President Bill Clinton.

    Click here to see a slideshow of the former speaker of the House.

    In early May, he made his 2012 run official. "I have been humbled by all the encouragement you have given me to run," Gingrich wrote on Facebook and Twitter.

    But a month later, the campaign was practically in ruins — with his campaign manager, spokesman, senior strategists all resigning en masse. Most cited issues with the "direction" of the campaign. But Gingrich vowed to press on.

    Slideshow: Newt Gingrich

    Also at issue: Gingrich’s personal life could make winning the support of social conservatives thorny for the twice-divorced former lawmaker. In a damning interview earlier this year, Esquire quoted one of Gingrich’s former wives describing him as a hypocrite who preached the sanctity of marriage while in the midst of conducting an illicit affair.

    Additional obstacles include his recent criticism of Rep. Paul Ryan’s fiscal plan as “right-wing social engineering" and reports of a $500,000 line of credit to Tiffany’s, the luxury jewelry company.

  • Gary Johnson, announced on April 21

    Image:Gary Johnson
    Jim Cole  /  AP
    Former New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson

    The former New Mexico governor took a big leap in late April, not by announcing an exploratory committee, but by actually announcing his official candidacy. “I’m running for president of the United States,” he told a couple of supporters and cameramen gathered for his announcement outside the New Hampshire State Capitol.

    He's a steadfast libertarian who supports the legalization of marijuana. He vetoed more than 700 pieces of legislation during his two terms as governor.


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