HANOVER, N.H. — The race for electoral votes could be so close in November that small states may well pick the next president. Among the diminutive states, New Hampshire is by far the most interesting.

Consider that in 2000, George W. Bush beat Al Gore here by 7,211 votes (Ralph Nader got just over 22,000). If New Hampshire’s four electoral votes had gone the other way, Gore would have won and Florida would not have mattered.

New Hampshire is also one of only three states that changed sides between 2000 and 2004, and the only one that switched to the Democrats. John Kerry carried it by 9,274 votes.

Because the state holds the nation’s first primary, voters here have been studying the candidates for well over a year. New Hampshire probably has the highest percentage of citizens who have actually met John McCain and Barack Obama.

Maddeningly, the polls suggest that the vote here this year could be as close as it was in the last two elections. “You’re going to see house-to-house combat for these votes,” says Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, a Democrat.

If John McCain has a political second home, this is it, the place where the Straight Talk Express first rolled. McCain won in a landslide over Bush in the 2000 primary and he launched his political comeback here this year. “He has experienced rebirth twice in New Hampshire,” chuckles Rep. Paul Hodes, a Democrat and an early Obama supporter.

Republicans insist that McCain’s special standing gives him a kind of immunity. “The thing Democrats are counting on nationally doesn’t work here: They can’t turn him into George Bush’s third term,” said Tom Rath, a veteran New Hampshire Republican strategist. “New Hampshire looked at George Bush eight years ago and John McCain eight years ago and understood there was a difference.”

Rath, who supported Mitt Romney in the Republican primary, learned the depth of the state’s easy familiarity with McCain the hard way. The Romney campaign hoped it might turn voters away from McCain by giving them new information about him, Rath said, but discovered that “there was nothing we could tell them that they didn’t know.”

Compounding the uncertainty, both Hodes and Rath said, is the fact that many independents, who were free to vote in either party’s primary, expressed sympathy for both Obama and McCain.

“I spoke to a lot of independent voters who said, ‘I’m going to vote for Obama or McCain. I just can’t figure it out, I just can’t decide,'” said Hodes. “They’d say, ‘They’re both straight talkers, they both want to bring people together, they’re both honest.'”

For many independents, by far the state’s largest group of voters, Obama and McCain were, Hodes said, “the dual Straight Talk Express.”

Yet Hodes and other Democrats say that Republicans are vastly overestimating the advantages McCain has from his past. As Ray Buckley, the Democratic state chairman, points out, “The reality is that in January, McCain came in third place.” Hillary Clinton received 112,000 votes in the primary, Obama just under 105,000, and McCain 88,000. Overall, many more voters chose to cast ballots in the Democratic primary than in the Republican primary. The Democratic advantage was 287,000 to 239,000.

Moreover, Republican support in the state has been crumbling. Democrats swept the state in 2006. Gov. John Lynch was re-elected in a landslide and is heavily favored this year. Hodes and Shea-Porter took the state’s two U.S. House seats away from Republican incumbents. Democrats won both houses of the state Legislature for the first time since 1874.

Shea-Porter shocked even her own party with her victory over Rep. Jeb Bradley, and polls suggest that she faces a tough contest this year. But she says she’s confident of her chances and Obama’s because discontent in the state is, if anything, stronger than it was in 2006. “The mood is somber, very worried, and people are very frustrated,” she says.

Fergus Cullen, the Republican state chairman, is remarkably candid about his party’s wounded image, which is why he so values McCain’s reputation for independence. Cullen noted that during a visit to New Hampshire last week, McCain “didn’t use the word Republican once. That’s OK with me. I consider that good politics in this environment.”

“If the Democrats succeed in framing this election as Bush’s third term or as a referendum on the Republican Party, my party is in big trouble,” Cullen explained. “You remember the scene in the first ‘Star Wars’ when Princess Leia says to Obi-Wan Kenobi, ‘You’re my only hope’? That’s how I feel about John McCain.”

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

Your support matters…

Independent journalism is under threat and overshadowed by heavily funded mainstream media.

You can help level the playing field. Become a member.

Your tax-deductible contribution keeps us digging beneath the headlines to give you thought-provoking, investigative reporting and analysis that unearths what's really happening- without compromise.

Give today to support our courageous, independent journalists.