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In New Hampshire, the swing voters who count first

In New Hampshire, undeclared voters dominate the political landscape and may hold the key to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

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As schoolteacher Betty Ward evaluates the 16 candidates running for president, uppermost in her mind is: Who will get US troops out of Iraq? She's mulling over whom to vote for.

Donna Richards will vote for someone who can be trusted and whose aim is to bring about peace. Her choice: undecided.

Attorney Andre Gibeau is seeking a candidate with courage to return to Congress much of the power he believes was usurped by President Bush.

Meet some of New Hampshire's freethinking and increasingly dissatisfied independents, who quite possibly hold the key to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. They dwarf the ranks of registered Democrats or Republicans in this state. What they're thinking may well signal which themes will strike a chord with the roughly 20 percent of voters nationwide who consider themselves independents.

"New Hampshire will be a good test to see what [independents] find attractive on both sides," says Dante Scala, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

Despite their diversity, New Hampshire's independents share some characteristics. They tend to be among the most fiscally conservative of the state's voters. The bad feelings they harbor toward the Bush administration's runaway spending have moved them further away from the GOP, and state polls consistently show they've been tilting toward the Democrats. But they're frustrated with the polarization in American politics and are increasingly dissatisfied with both parties for their inability to tackle America's most intractable problems.

"More than anything they have a lack of confidence in the political leadership," says Dick Bennett, head of American Research Group, a nonpartisan polling firm in Manchester.

Russ Ouellette is among those who have lost faith in political professionals and wants to hear candidates talk about wide-ranging reform. "We can't respond to hurricanes," says the business consultant from Bedford, N.H. "We're at war with an enemy that seems almost made up. We're supposed to live in fear all the time, yet go shopping to solve the problem."

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