HOOKSETT, N.H. - Undeclared voters like Joe Arnold are the holy grail of presidential candidates on both sides of the aisle. But they are not at all easy to pin down.
Pausing to chat in the lobby of the Hooksett post office yesterday, Arnold, a veteran, said he is a big fan of John McCain, a Vietnam War hero who presents himself as a friend of the military. But the 41-year-old drywaller from Londonderry also worries about his son-in-law, who cannot afford health insurance for his wife and baby. So he is increasingly leaning toward Hillary Clinton, who he believes might be able to fix the country's healthcare system.
"I would probably say it's time for change," he said.
Now, he said, as he spat chewing tobacco into a Dunkin' Donuts cup, he just has to check Clinton's record on gun owners' rights.
Undeclared voters represent 44 percent of the electorate, New Hampshire's largest single voting bloc, and can vote in either party's primary Tuesday, so they are widely considered the key to victory for candidates in both parties. But they're a key with some unusual edges.
In New Hampshire, true independents tend to have a libertarian streak, a penchant for mavericks, and a distaste for politicians who avoid answering questions. Divorced from party machinery and comfortable with playing the field, they tend to enjoy shopping around. This weekend, they are swarming political events across the state in hopes of settling on a candidate.
To be sure, some voters label themselves undeclared but in practice regularly vote either Democratic or Republican. But others, like Arnold, are listening carefully to candidates on both sides of the aisle. For them, the choice is not just between Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee or between Barack Obama or Clinton, but also between Democrat or Republican, Obama or McCain, for instance.
Obama, who won the Democratic caucuses in Iowa with heavy support from independents, and McCain, who won the 2000 New Hampshire primary with their support, are particularly eager to win over this group. A Rasmussen tracking poll yesterday suggests that independents could make up 40 percent of the Democratic electorate and 32 percent of the Republican electorate in this year's primary.
One big question is whether the wave of independents that carried McCain to victory eight years ago will turn out in such great numbers this time.
Kristen Sweet, a 34-year-old undeclared voter from Londonderry who was bowling with her husband, a mechanic in the Air Force, in Manchester the other night, said she had enthusiastically supported McCain in 2000, and she still considers him a strong, charismatic leader.
But life has changed since then. Healthcare has become a big issue. With changes in military benefits, her family now has to help pay for health insurance. In addition, Sweet spends hours on the phone with Medicare agents helping to deal with problems in her mother's coverage. Gas prices have shot up, greatly increasing the cost of her husband's 100-mile round-trip commute to the Seacoast region each day.
Most importantly, Sweet's husband has deployed repeatedly to Iraq and Afghanistan, and she desperately wants the war to end. "Enough is enough," she said.
Sweet is still considering McCain, but his strong support for the war worries her. She went to see Democrat John Edwards and loved his message on universal healthcare, but his plan to force Congress to pass it by threatening to withhold Congress's healthcare seems unrealistic to her. She hasn't closed the books yet on Clinton, and she plans to check out Obama today.
"We just want somebody to grab us and make us feel like, 'OK, this one can really do it,' " she said. "You want this person to inspire you - to give you the sense that everything may not be perfect but there's a chance that some things could change and make life better."
Diana Osgood, 60, of Concord, an assistant to a financial planner, made a decision after hearing Clinton speak at Merrimack Valley High School in Penacook yesterday morning.
"I was very interested in McCain, but I think he's a little too old to be doing this right now," she said. "I will watch the debate tonight, but right now I'm 99 percent sure Hillary will have my vote."
Political analysts are betting that independents in New Hampshire are more likely to vote Democratic this year than in 2000 because of dissatisfaction with the Bush administration, the war, and the economy.
Richard Boucher, 63, an independent from Hooksett, voted for President Bush in 2000, and he initially supported his decision to go to war in Iraq. But this year, he said, he will vote in the Democratic primary.
"I think we should have gotten out of there right away," he said. "All the money we spent there should have been spent for our people. Billions and billions have been wasted."
He likes Clinton, whose husband he voted for twice, but he said she has not won him over entirely yet. Obama, he said, "seems to be pretty smart, he's well educated, and he comes out really strong," but Boucher isn't sure about him, either. The debates, he said, could determine his vote.
As she watched her 4-year-old, Maddy, take an ice skating lesson at the Everett Arena in Concord yesterday, Joan Follansbee, 37, of Hopkinton, said she, too, definitely plans to vote Democratic because she is opposed to the war and objects to the No Child Left Behind law.
Her union is supporting Clinton, but she said she is nervous about having a woman president - "too emotional," she said, though she added that Clinton had racked up significant experience with her husband in the White House.
Obama's big win in Iowa, she said, had made her reconsider him. A friend, she said, was volunteering for the Obama campaign and had called earlier to ask for her support.
"I think I will probably call her and ask her what he stands for and why she's supporting him," she said.
Many of those interviewed said they will wait until the very last minute to make up their minds. Robert Reese, who said he was one of the first New Hampshire voters to register as an independent nearly 40 years ago, was still hunting for a candidate with his wife, Emily, and 5-year-old daughter when they came to see former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani speak at the American Legion Hall in Salem on Friday.
He said he probably will not decide until Tuesday who he will vote for and could give his support to either a Democrat or a Republican
"There are so many good candidates, you lock in on one, and then lock in on another," he said.
Marcella Bombardieri and Bryan Bender of the Globe staff contributed to this report.