Handicapping the New Hampshire Free-for-All

The independent variable makes the Republican race tough to call. Here's how it could shake out.
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New Hampshire has the nation's first primary. Over the weekend, the race became rough-and-tumble as the second-place challengers, Sen. Hillary Clinton (D., N.Y.) and Mitt Romney, went on the attack.

The Democratic race has become clear. It's a two-way race between Clinton and Sen. Barack Obama (D., Ill.), who won the Iowa caucus. The Republican race, however, could have more twists and turns than your average horse race.

The New Hampshire primary is intriguing because a voter can vote for any candidate. Republicans can vote Democratic and vice versa. Independents also are free to chose anyone, and the number of independents has increased with defections from the major parties. Whom will they pick?

The most recent poll out of New Hampshire has Obama pulling away with a blowout victory. I concede that Obama will win with the help of independents. I do not, however, see it as a blowout. Clinton has campaigned hard in the state and has numerous endorsements from major papers. She has spent significant time in New Hampshire, plus she had a strong showing in the debate over the weekend.

I'm calling the primary: Obama in first and Clinton in a close second, with Edwards very far behind in third place. Gov. Bill Richardson (D., N.M.) probably will stay in the race through the Nevada primary. Richardson wants to see a western state have more influence, and Nevada's primary was moved ahead of Super Tuesday, Feb. 5. I would be surprised if Richardson garnered more than 5%.

The Republican race is trickier than the Democratic one. The independents have three candidates to choose from: Obama, Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) and Rep. Ron Paul (R., Texas). In 2000, McCain charged to a win in New Hampshire with the help of independents and Democratic crossovers. Given that there is more choice, the votes will disperse, costing McCain support.

Romney had a strong performance in a Fox forum over the weekend, whereas McCain stumbled. As a former governor of Massachusetts, Romney is also a local favorite. But the best poll in New Hampshire, the

CNN/WMUR/UNH, had McCain with a 6-point lead. Again, this race will be closer. I see McCain barely holding on to beat Romney.

Third place will be even tougher. It is possible that Mike Huckabee gained enough momentum from his win in Iowa to move up into third place in New Hampshire. He has to fight off both Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani to do so.

Giuliani stayed in New Hampshire rather than go to Iowa last week for the caucus. I don't think this will help him. Giuliani performed poorly in the Fox forum and is an afterthought at this point.

Paul was excluded from the Fox forum over the weekend. I'm sure this has his supporters up in arms about the snub. They are very active and will turn out. He was one of the three candidates to win a county in Iowa and finished solidly in fifth place there with 10%. I believe Paul will attract a large number of independents and Democrats and take third place over Huckabee with more than 10% of the vote.

The independents will help Obama and Paul and provide a marginal boost to McCain. South Carolina comes next.