Dems Chase Freshness-Craved Voters

By: AP
By: AP

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) -- Short on time to tweak their strategies before New Hampshire votes, Barack Obama's chief Democratic rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and John Edwards are struggling to keep their messages in step with voters' embrace of freshness and change.

Clinton, the New York senator and former first lady, says her eight years in the White House help make her "ready to be president" from Day One. But she also promises sweeping change in Washington, a forward- and backward-looking message that some find contradictory.

Edwards, meanwhile, is like a miler boxed in by other runners. He has lost his 2004 fresh-and-intriguing mantle to Obama. With only one Senate term, he can hardly claim more experience than the others. And while he also vows to bring dramatic change to government, many Democratic voters seem to find Obama's similar promise - and Obama himself - more compelling, new and exciting.

Jacqui Harmon, owner of the Mainely Gourmet chocolate shop in Portsmouth, N.H., exemplifies the challenge facing Clinton and Edwards. She definitely will vote in Tuesday's New Hampshire Democratic primary, she said, because she's deeply unhappy with the Bush administration.

Harmon said in an interview Saturday she was undecided and torn by her choice among good candidates. But the more she talked, the more she found herself praising Obama, for reasons she conceded she couldn't fully explain.

Clinton "looks stressed out and exhausted," Harmon said, and too many Americans strongly oppose her. Edwards is handsome and charming, she said, but "seems sort of empty" - in part because she has heard less about him.

Obama "is so fresh," Harmon said. "He's young and he's got this good spirit. It emanates, it comes through on TV."

Clinton and Edwards have strong, well-financed campaigns here, and no one is counting them out in a state that often rejects the Iowa caucus winner.

Still, veteran students of New Hampshire politics say Obama's intriguing biography and call for a new direction in Washington seem to be clicking with voters here, much as it did in Iowa.

"I can't help but think it's going to be a similar scene here," said Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.

"Edwards' anti-corporate message - the populist, us-against-them message - plays a lot better in a place like Iowa than New Hampshire," where many Democrats work for high-tech corporations, Scala said. "He's a change agent, but the message doesn't fit New Hampshire very well."

Clinton, Scala said, has strong support from mainstream, establishment Democrats, and she certainly could win here. But signs point to a big turnout from independent-leaning voters, like those who boosted Obama in Iowa, he said.

The first-term Illinois senator "appeals to an upscale, Volvo-driving Democrat," Scala said. "They'll say, 'Hey, I'm going to participate in something pretty historic.'"

In Iowa, half of Democrats said the ability to force change was the pivotal factor in picking a candidate, and half of them backed Obama, according to an entrance poll for The Associated Press and television networks.

Dean Spiliotes, a former professor who writes a widely read political blog in New Hampshire, said Clinton has the best chance of stopping Obama, but the Iowa victory is likely to push wavering independent-leaning Democrats into his camp. "It assuages their doubt," he said.

Further complicating things for Clinton is Edwards' argument that she represents the status quo in Washington, as he presents himself and Obama as the only two "change agents" in the race.

Some voters seem to share Edwards' and Clinton's frustrations nearly as much as the candidates.

John Sammel, 82, stood at a jam-packed Edwards town hall event in Portsmouth on Friday and praised the North Carolina Democrat for his consistent and passionate call for policies to help the middle class.

"Unfortunately, Obama has picked up his lines," Sammel told the crowd, prompting many to nod in agreement.

A few feet away sat Bob Myrick, the type of voter Clinton and Edwards must win to avert a second Obama victory.

Myrick, 58, a freelance designer from Milton, N.H., had nothing but praise for all the Democrats, including New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.

While he likes Edwards, the former senator "is a bit of an unknown," Myrick said in an interview, as he waited for the question-and-answer event, where he hoped to learn more.

Clinton, he said, "has a lot of political savvy." But Myrick said he worries about the many people, including his mother-in-law, who say they would never vote for her even if they cannot explain why.

Myrick said he wonders if Obama, given his scant time in national office, would bring a wise and capable team to the White House. Still, he said, Obama "has the personality to bring people together who have opposing views."

The consummate undecided Democrat, Myrick said at last: "Right now I'm leaning toward Obama."

Clinton and Edwards have two days to persuade the Bob Myricks of New Hampshire to lean another way.

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EDITOR'S NOTE: Charles Babington has covered politics from Washington since 1987.

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