When it comes to battleground states this political season, New Hampshire may be the smallest, but it could have the biggest impact on who occupies the Oval Office next year.
Polls in the Granite State show President Obama and Mitt Romney statistically tied. And with New Hampshire's electorate notoriously fickle, capable of shifts in the polls in the final days before the voting, pollsters on both sides of the political divide aren't quite sure what to expect on Election Day.
But the stakes are high. With a presidential race growing tighter in its final days, New Hampshire's four electoral votes could prove pivotal in the competition for the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.
In a testament to just how important New Hampshire has become to the candidates, both President Obama and Mitt Romney are using the final days of the presidential campaign to squeeze in last-minute campaign stops there.
Mitt Romney, the Republican presidential nominee, campaigned in the state over the weekend and returns to Manchester tonight for his final rally of the presidential campaign. The president, meanwhile, was in Concord Sunday before heading to the other key battleground states of Ohio, Florida and Colorado.
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Political observers say the campaign visits underscore just how critical each camp views a win in the state.
"There's no question about just how close this race is shaping up to be," says Melvin Dubnick, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. "Voters here are essentially behaving very much like other swing states and they're completely engaged in this presidential campaign."
The Obama and Romney campaigns differ about where the race stands but a new poll shows Mitt Romney gaining ground on the president.
The WMUR Granite State Poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center shows Romney closing the gap on the president among likely voters with each drawing 47 percent of support. Four percent of likely voters in the survey are undecided. When undecided voters are asked which candidate they lean toward, Obama and Romney remain tied, with 48 percent for Obama, 48 percent for Romney. The margin of sampling error for the survey is +/- 4.4 percentage points.
The survey's results are an improvement for Romney, who has lagged the president in the state for months.
The poll shows Obama losing considerable support since 2008 as only 87 percent of 2008 Obama voters say they will vote for him this time while 94 percent of McCain voters say they will vote for Romney. Romney runs strongest in the vote-rich Manchester area and in towns along the Massachusetts border while Obama gets more support in the North Country and in the Connecticut River valley.
There is a pronounced gender gap, but neither candidate benefits. Obama leads among women by 58 percent to 40 percent while Romney leads among men, 57 percent to 38 percent. Independents, who often wait until the very end before deciding how they will vote, are breaking heavily to Romney -- 54 percent say they will vote for Romney while only 32 percent say they will vote for Obama.
"The movement of Independents to Romney is the most significant factor in his making this race a dead heat," said Andrew Smith, Director of the UNH Survey Center. "Two weeks ago, independents were divided in who they would support."
Obama has struggled to fend off criticism of a struggling economy but economic issues will hurt him less in New Hampshire, a state that recovered from the recession much quicker than other states. (Its unemployment rate as of September was just 5.7 percent, well below the national average and seventh-lowest in the country.)
Dubnick, the professor of political science at the UNH, says the state's aversion to taxes and debt and its affection for small government could push voters toward Romney.
"He's made those issues central to his national campaign and those issues resonate here." Dubnick says women's issues – which are playing a big role in the gubernatorial and congressional campaigns in the state -- could help tip the balance for Obama.
The president is making a big push to reach women in a state with three women on the Democratic ticket: Maggie Hassan, who is running to succeed the retiring John Lynch against Republican Ovide M. Lamontagne; and Carol Shea-Porter and Ann McLane Kuster, who are challenging Republican Reps. Frank Guinta and Charlie Bass in the two congressional races.
"Through surrogates and advertising the president is trying very hard to appeal to women," adds Dubnick. "It has the potential to pay off in a state that's fiscally conservative but liberal on social issues." (New Hampshire was the first state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, which eventually fell short of full ratification nationally.)
The outcome in New Hampshire will likely depend on voter turnout. Obama's grass-roots operation is thought to have an edge there but Republicans say Romney's team, in cooperation with the national and state GOP, is far ahead of what McCain did in New Hampshire four years ago.
Obama won New Hampshire comfortably in the 2008 general election after losing the state primary to Hillary Rodham Clinton. George W. Bush won the state by one point over Vice President Al Gore in 2000. Bush lost the state to John Kerry by a point four years later making New Hampshire the only state that year to switch from Republican to Democrat.
Romney, no doubt, is also banking on his many ties to New Hampshire to help bolster his chances in the state. A former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, the Republican nominee owns a waterfront home on Lake Winnipesaukee in Wolfeboro where he vacations each summer. Romney launched his campaign in New Hampshire in June 2011 and scored a decisive victory in the Republican primary. He then returned to the state to launch his general election campaign.
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