Attention shifts to first presidential primary

The first plane landed here from Iowa even before the caucuses started Thursday. But the rest of the presidential pack was right behind Sen. John McCain, as planeloads of candidates, campaign workers and media arrive today for the last push to the first primary.

After a year of sharing the spotlight and the candidates with Iowa, New Hampshire becomes the sole focus of the 2008 presidential race until Tuesday's primary.

The last few days before voting "are always the most memorable of any primary campaign," state Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley says. "The electricity is amazing."

Races in both parties are tight. A Franklin Pierce University poll out Thursday shows Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, winner of Iowa's Democratic caucuses, virtually tied with New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton. Among Republicans, Arizona's McCain leads former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney by six percentage points.

In the remaining days, candidates will try to close the deal: "Once again, I need your help," McCain says in an ad that began airing Thursday.

"I'm asking for your vote," Romney says in his current TV spot.

After today's rallies on the airport tarmac, candidates will race between town hall meetings, fundraisers and house parties. Both Democrats and Republicans will participate in back-to-back debates on Saturday. Sponsored by ABC and Manchester TV station WMUR, the debates are the first to be carried on a broadcast network. Republicans also will debate Sunday on Fox News Channel.

Candidates will try to hammer home their main themes while campaign workers focus on getting out the vote.

"We plan to contact voters — undecideds, in particular, and our supporters — multiple times before Election Day," says Ben LaBolt of the Obama campaign, which says it has signed up 700 ward and town captains and issued 10,000 yard signs.

Clinton will campaign with her husband, former president Bill Clinton, and Robert F. Kennedy.

As if it won't be chilly enough in the snow-covered state, supporters of former North Carolina senator John Edwards will hand out ice cream Saturday, led by Ben & Jerry's founder Ben Cohen from neighboring Vermont.

Until today, McCain and Romney, both focused on winning the first-in-the-nation primary, often had the state to themselves. Former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani also squeezed in an ahead-of-the-pack appearance Thursday.

Now former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, winner of the Iowa caucuses, will arrive to woo New Hampshire Republicans, less religious and socially conservative than GOP voters in Iowa, though just as anti-tax. So far, he has lagged in polls here.

By now, however, candidate messages are secondary to most voters, University of New Hampshire (UNH) pollster Andrew Smith says. Instead, they are focused on leadership and electability: "Voters here want to see the candidate who can win in November."

About two-thirds of Republican primary voters and more than half of Democratic primary voters say they haven't decided who to support, according to the UNH poll. About a quarter of voters here make up their minds during the last weekend before the primary, Smith says.

"I'm shocked at the number of people who are still undecided," says Romney spokesman Craig Stevens. "But in a place where people take their role seriously, they're looking at all the candidates."

Local television is already chockablock with candidate ads, some negative. On Thursday, a new Romney ad slammed McCain for supporting immigration legislation and opposing President Bush's tax cuts — but it begins with praise for McCain's "outstanding war record," calling him a "true patriot." A McCain ad questions Romney's foreign policy experience.

Romney and Obama are significantly outspending their rivals in advertising on WMUR, the state's largest TV station, according to data from UNH political scientist Dante Scala."I've never seen this many candidates on both sides of the aisle have this many resources that they're bringing to bear on New Hampshire," state GOP Chairman Fergus Cullen says.

Contributing: Fredreka Schouten in McLean, Va.