The pundits have had plenty to say, and the presidential contenders, too.
But on Tuesday, it's the voters of New Hampshire who are finally speaking — and their ballots will determine whether these candidates have any reason to keep hoping.
At the Exeter, N.H. town hall, across the street from the gazebo where Republican presidential contender Barry Goldwater delivered a speech attacking Social Security in the 1964 GOP primary, Darlene Underhill, a nurse-consultant, cast her vote for Sen. Barack Obama.
“His positions are similar to the other Democrats running, but I think he can actually get things done. He has excited me more than any other candidate. I was a child when Bobby Kennedy was around; I remember the fervor of it but I wasn’t old enough to participate,” she said. “This is something special.”
She said she considered voting for former Sen. John Edwards and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
“I like John Edwards. But I think he’s a bit too angry sometimes,” she said. “When I see him in his speeches he brings a lot of people up on stage and talks about their personal stories; he doesn’t talk so much about what he is going to do. How many people does he need to parade up there to know that the system is broken? We know it is broken, insurance companies, health care."
But, she added, "We can’t be confrontational with all of these corporations. We have to find a way to work together. That’s my beef with John Edwards."
Clinton 'very polarizing'
“The only candidate I don’t really like on the Democratic side is Hillary. Very polarizing, I don’t trust her, I think she’s politics as usual, she’s too beholden to all the special interests,” Underhill said.
She voted for Howard Dean in the 2004 primary, but voted for Republican Sen. John McCain in the 2000 primary.
Exeter is a town that leans Democratic: in the 2004 election, Democrat John Kerry got 56 percent of the vote here over President George W. Bush.
In the 2000 Republican primary McCain crushed Bush in this town: 1,673 to 963.
Richard St. Pierre, a registered Democrat and a retiree who has gone back to work at a Velcro factory in Somerset, N.H., also cast his ballot for Obama.
“I like his attitude, he’s calm and cool,” St. Pierre said. “There’s something about Clinton I just don’t….” he didn’t finish the sentence but it was clear that he would not consider backing her.
“If I hadn’t voted for Obama, I would have voted for Edwards,” he added.
Does Obama have enough experience to be president, we asked St Pierre. “If that actor, what’s his name can be president, then Obama can.”
Ronald Reagan? “Yes, if he can be president, then Obama can. Obama’s a lot smarter than Reagan,” St. Pierre said.
St. Pierre added that his favorite presidential candidate in recent times has been “that billionaire fellow,” Ross Perot, for whom he voted in 1992. “You could tell he was honest.”
Clinton voters: Obama isn't ready
A theme often heard from Clinton voters in Exeter: Obama just isn't ready.
Tracy Jeffers, a registered Democrat who called herself “a full-time mom and a part-time social worker,” said she voted for Sen. Hillary Clinton because “she has the experience and she has a plan to implement that change — unlike others in her party.”
Jeffers said she liked Obama but “he has inexperience and really does not have the plan to follow through with his enthusiasm.”
Obama “is very charismatic and he’s new, but I don’t think we have time for the learning curve for him,” said Clinton voter Bjarni Brown said as she left the town hall.
Registered Democrat and semi-retired grammar school teacher Diane McGowan said, “I’m not interested in how good speaker someone is as in what they’ve done. I was looking for experience.” She said Obama has good ideas but “the lack of experience is very important.”
In the 2004 primary, she voted for former Vice Presidnent Al Gore, writing his name on the ballot.
If in the November election, the choice ends up as Obama versus McCain, “I would vote for McCain, or I’d have a write in for Hillary. I like the fact that McCain continually says the same thing; I don’t see any flip-flops with McCain.”
But she was dismayed by his comment on NBC's "Meet the Press" Sunday that knowing what we know today, he’d still have supported an invasion of Iraq in 2003.
McCain admirers among Democrats
Based on our very small sample in Exeter, McCain seems to have a reservoir of admirers among Democrats.
Jason Burke, a software engineer said he liked Clinton but voted for Obama. Four years ago he didn’t vote in the Democratic presidential primary because he couldn’t decide which candidate was the best.
A registered independent, he voted for Democratic Sen. John Kerry in the 2004 election against Bush.
“I don’t usually vote Republican but I enjoy McCain as well as Obama in terms of leadership.”
But Edwards “comes across as more stiff, more political, I guess you’d say. Obama is refreshing; he appears to talk straighter to people,” Burke said.
Would Burke vote for McCain?
“If John Edwards is running against McCain (in November), I probably would,” he replied. “He’s much more personable, he’s more of a moderate. Even though I don’t share his philosophies because of the party he’s part of, there’s an impression he’s going to be much more reasonable and not always along party lines.”
An Obama voter who admired McCain was Mary Benda, who backed McCain in the 2000 GOP primary.
She voted for Bush in both the 2000 and 2004 elections “and I’m not happy with the way things are now.”
Does Benda see any similarity between McCain and Obama?
“There are some similarities because I think McCain is lot more liberal than he appears to be,” she said. “And he’s his own man.”
On the Republican side, John Donahue, a retiree who is working as a part-time deliveryman, said he backed McCain because “he’s behind what our military has been doing and this country is so great because of its military.”
He added that he considered voting for Mike Huckabee: “He’s very colorful, he’s got a nice personality. Even Obama presents himself nicely; he’s going to do a hell of a job on Hillary, I think. I’m a registered Republican, but I think it’ll be a Democrat who makes it” in November.
Siding with Giuliani
"I voted for Giuliani. Haven’t heard that all day, have you?" said Sherry Merrifield, a research scientist, after she voted in mid-afternoon.
Merrifield said media reports of McCain making a good showing in New Hampshire "are skewing people already. You may not be reporting results, but they’re measuring the spread already on all the talk shows: they've got McCain out there and Romney right behind him. So it is influencing those who’re switching between McCain and Giuliani.”
She said she that "McCain and Giuliani are similar on a lot of issues," but she cast her ballot for Giuliani because "although I’m a Republican, I do believe in civil unions and gay marriage. And Giuliani is much stronger in some of his foreign policy, so that's why I made that choice."
She added that Giuliani “may still have a chance” to win the nomination, “but it's probably is going to be McCain. I was debating all the way driving here whether I should switch to McCain but I have to go with what I believe in.”
A Romney voter worried about amnesty
Judith Cole, who works at the Timberland Company in Exeter, said she voted for Mitt Romney.
“I think he’d be an honest president. Just knowing the faith he’s involved in, he’d have to be honest,” she said referring to his Mormonism.
She says she's not a Mormon, but believes, “...they have a very good faith, very honest.”
She said she had wavered between Mitt Romney and McCain, but explained that “I know he’d be honest too. It just seems like the immigration/border thing could be a problem. He’s from a border state and I think he would be more sympathetic with immigrants.”
So she’s worried McCain isn’t strong enough on the immigration issue? “He hasn’t been in the past,” she replied.
Susan Shanelaris, a registered Republican and Romney supporter, showed up to vote Tuesday morning with her two-month old daughter Sela in her arms. Shanelaris said, “I like that Romney has actually done something for health care” by implementing a plan for complete insurance coverage in Massachusetts. “Whether or not it will work, I don’t know. I also like his stance on immigration.”
McCain? “I considered him briefly until I heard about his immigration policy, the amnesty issue,” Shanelaris said.
Would she have considered voting for any Democrats? “I actually considered Joe Biden but he dropped out. He and (Connecticut Sen.) Chris Dodd both were very well qualified and have done a lot during their terms in the Senate. Biden didn’t do a lot of double speak — he meant what he said.”