By STEVE PEOPLESAssociated Press
DERRY, N.H. (AP) - Perhaps no presidential battleground will test the leanings of critical independent voters more than the "Live Free or Die" state, the launching pad for Mitt Romney's White House bid.
President Barack Obama won New Hampshire handily four years ago, but former Massachusetts Gov. Romney's ties run deep in a place that has vacillated between Republicans and Democrats in recent years. Both campaigns are flooding the tiny state with money and attention, suggesting more may be at stake than four electoral votes in an election each side expects will be a nail-biter to the end.
Indeed, in some ways, the battle for this state is almost personal.
"Gov. Romney has a very special relationship with New Hampshire," says Jim Merrill, a top New Hampshire-based strategist for both of Romney's presidential campaigns.
Romney grew up in Michigan and is registered to vote in Massachusetts. But he formally declared his candidacy on a New Hampshire farm one year ago, spends summer weekends in a vacation home on the state's largest lake and launches his six-state bus tour here Friday.
Despite the familiarity, there is little doubt that Romney - sometimes dubbed an "adopted New Hampshire son" - faces a steep climb.
Recent polls give Obama an early edge. Romney also is just beginning to awaken a local campaign apparatus that's largely been dormant for months. Obama's team, meanwhile, activated its grassroots network long ago.
The walls were still bare in parts of Romney's state headquarters last week, the same day Obama's team hosted nearly two dozen house parties across the state. Scores of Democratic volunteers gathered at strangers' kitchen tables, on front porches and in sewing rooms to make calls, recruit more volunteers and attack their Republican opponent.
"I've loved Obama since the beginning," says Mary Hogarty, an energetic 72-year-old retiree who opened her small Derry home to two dozen Obama volunteers she had never met. She said she thinks the economy is "better than people make it out to be."
She is not alone, especially in a state with an economy stronger than the nation's.
New Hampshire's unemployment rate stands at just 5 percent, among the best in the country, compared to the nationwide average of 8.2 percent. Romney argues that any economic success is in spite of - not because of - Obama's leadership. That's an argument Republicans are making in other swing states with below average unemployment rates - Iowa, Wisconsin, Ohio and Colorado among them.
The latest University of New Hampshire poll showed that half of voters in the state approve of Obama's job performance. The survey, conducted before the economy showed signs of softening in April, gave Obama a 9-point lead. Independents - the group expected to decide contests in key battleground states - favored Romney.
Republicans slightly outnumber Democrats in New Hampshire, but nearly 40 percent of voters are not registered with any party.
"Right now our polls are showing Obama in the lead and his approval rating has ticked up slightly," says UNH pollster Andy Smith. "But come November, this race is going to be neck and neck, probably decided by 1 percent."
It may come down to which side can drive turnout. And on that measure, Obama's organization has a distinct early advantage.
Romney was a regular New Hampshire presence before the state's first-in-the-nation primary in January, but spent subsequent months traversing the country fighting his GOP opponents. He returned to New Hampshire in late April and delivered what most consider his opening general election address when it became clear he was his party's presumptive presidential nominee.
Since then, consumed by fundraising across the country, Romney has campaigned in New Hampshire just twice. His state headquarters opened less than a week ago and he has since opened just one other office.
The Obama campaign, by contrast opened its eighth state office Thursday. Its Manchester headquarters is well worn, with young staffers buzzing about and boxes of granola bars, chips and pretzels stacked in a corner. Vice President Joe Biden has visited New Hampshire three times this year. Obama and first lady Michelle Obama have visited once each in an official capacity, and Obama was expected to campaign in Strafford County on June 25.
"Here in New Hampshire, we've been working all year," says Mary Rauh, a member of Obama's state steering committee.
Local Democrats are motivated, she says, by the aggressive actions of the Republican-led state Legislature and their familiarity with Romney's policies.
"Mitt Romney has said, 'Planned Parenthood, we're going to end that,'" she says. "The good news is that it's getting women moving. We're going back in history 35 or 40 years."
After a post-primary respite, New Hampshire airwaves are beginning to fill once again with political advertising.
As of last week, Obama's campaign had spent more than $2 million on television ads, while Romney hadn't spent anything, according to data obtained by The Associated Press. But Romney's Republican allies have picked up the slack. His super PAC, Restore Our Future, and the conservative group Crossroads GPS have spent more than $2.1 million on New Hampshire advertising, most of it attacking Obama.
New Hampshire was solidly Republican for a generation, but hasn't supported a Republican presidential candidate since 2000. The evolving electorate is considered far less partisan than voters in other states, although Republicans scored historic gains in the 2010 midterms.
With both sides preparing for a close election, the state's four electoral votes could be critical in reaching the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency, according to Romney political director Rich Beeson.
"This is not a state we won in 2008. We're playing on the Obama team's turf," he says. "Any state that we can take away is a state that makes it harder for them and easier for us to get to 270."
Convenience may also be a factor
Former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu notes that most of the population lies "on the straight line between (Romney's) place on Lake Winnepesaukee and his Belmont, Mass. home.
"It's an easy investment of time on an important state," Sununu says.
There's also cause for optimism for Romney, even inside one of Obama's recent house parties. From the floor of Hogarty's small home, a college-aged volunteer was locked in a conversation with a frustrated voter for several minutes.
"The progress has been slower that we'd like. I'm sorry to hear that, sir," said the Obama volunteer.
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