Unaffiliated voters play key role in N.H.

Armand Guillemette likes Democrat Barack Obama, but the independent voter went to his polling place in Manchester, N.H., on a mission Tuesday: to keep Republican John McCain's prospects alive.

"If I want McCain to be there (in the general election), he needs the help right now," said Guillemette, 75.

Support from independents such as Guillemette helped the Arizona senator defeat former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney in the Granite State, according to a survey of voters as they left polling places. The survey was done for the Associated Press and television networks. It was a showing that reprised his 2000 victory in the state against George W. Bush.

In the Democratic race, they were a large part of Illinois Sen. Barack Obama's support, although not enough to prevent New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton from edging him out.

More than a third of those who cast ballots in the Republican primary were independents. The unaffiliated voters, who are eligible to vote in either primary, accounted for more than four out of 10 voters in the Democratic primary.

McCain and Romney took the bulk of the independents who voted Republican, but McCain held a significant lead.

In the Democratic primary, independents who cited the war in Iraq as a top concern voted 2-to-1 for Obama, who has made his opposition to the war a key issue in his campaign.

Obama also led Clinton with independents on the economy. Even on health care, which Clinton has claimed as a signature issue, Obama was ahead with independents.

Among independent men, his support was nearly 3-to-1 over Clinton. Women split more evenly.

Frank Swierz, 66, a retiree and independent voter from Manchester, hasn't voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in more than 30 years. Tuesday, he voted for Obama.

"He is fresh," Swierz said. "I don't think he has been in Congress long enough to be sullied by the process down there."

Danielle Pettengill, 33, a massage therapist and yoga instructor from Nashua, said she decided to back Clinton in the final hours. "I'm ready for a woman president," she said.

Obama's battle cry of "change" matched the desires of independents. McCain had counted on the group, which delivered him the state eight years earlier.

Karen Becker, an independent in Nashua, wavered between McCain and Obama for months. In the end, Obama's decisive victory in the Iowa caucuses — and his pledge to bring a bipartisan spirit of change to Washington — won her over.

Becker, 31, said she respects McCain's military experience and years as a prisoner of war. In the end, Obama "got me more excited about the election," the health educator said.

McCain, among the most vigorous supporters of Bush's troop increase in Iraq, captured the overwhelming support of independents who said the war in Iraq was their top issue.

It was the reason that Gerry Laroche, 39, a home remodeler from Epping, voted for McCain. "I just want to be secure at home," he said.

Ron Paul, whose blunt anti-war views highlighted his departure from party orthodoxy, finished third among independents.

Jason Brown, 36, a physics teacher who went to his polling place in Nashua wearing a tie with drawings of Einstein and "E=MC" all over it, supported Paul.

"He has voted against the war in Iraq, and he's never taken a government junket," he said.

Guillemette, who backed McCain, said he is keeping his options open until the end.

He registered as a Republican on the way into his polling place and unregistered on the way out. He'll decide in November whether to back McCain again or go with Obama.

Contributing: David Jackson and Susan Page in Nashua; Martha T. Moore in Epping; and Glenn Blain of The Journal News in Westchester County, N.Y., and Todd Spangler of the Detroit Free Press in Manchester