In a state where "Live Free or Die" is the motto, the tenets of independence run deep -- especially when it comes to politics.
With fewer restrictions on party affiliation voting than most states, New Hampshire voters will continue their tradition of freedom when they cast ballots in Tuesday's early primary, but what that means for the presidential candidates remains unclear.
"They can ask for a Democrat or Republican ballot, vote, then ask immediately to be reregistered as an independent," said Richard Ager, the political editor of the nightly "NH Outlook" program on New Hampshire Public Television.
Ager plans to spend today outside Granite State polling stations, trying to gauge how the state's plurality of independents voted.
With the surprising number of young voters who caucused for Obama last week in Iowa, Ager will also have his eyes on polling places around Dartmouth College and the University of New Hampshire to see whether candidates have been able to mobilize the youth vote there.
Another significant factor to consider is that almost one-fourth of the state's potential voters didn't live there in 2000, he said.
New Hampshire officials -- like their counterparts in Iowa -- anticipate a heavy turnout.
Secretary of State Bill Gardner said last week that he expects about 500,000 people, including about 150,000 independents, to vote in the state's primary.
If independents vote Democratic in large numbers, it will be evidence that the strong desire on the left for a clear break from the policies of President Bush is shared by a group at the center of the electorate, the New York Times reported.
Gardner also predicted last week that six in 10 independents will decide to vote in the Democratic contest. Other recent polls reached similar conclusions.
About 45 percent of the state's 828,000 registered voters were unaffiliated with either party as of Oct. 31, the most recent data available, according to the Associated Press. That's a huge proportion compared to people entering last week's Iowa caucuses, in which independents comprised 20 percent at Democratic gatherings and 13 percent at the GOP's.
In 2000, Arizona Sen. John McCain’s presidential candidacy was revived by independent voters in New Hampshire who helped him beat George W. Bush by 18 points. He has lavished much of his campaign's attention on the state this year.
But McCain's support of the war in Iraq and his until-recently-floundering campaign have many wondering if his backers from 2000 will move on to another candidate.
"This time around seems to be a tug-of-war for independents between McCain and Barack Obama," Ager told the Online NewsHour. "How much will the 'Iowa bounce' attract to Obama or away from McCain?"
Both men are polling at the top of their respective parties headed into today's vote, according to RealClealPolitics.com.
Stephen Wayne, a professor in Georgetown University's government department, said the support they get from independents will act as a barometer of the state's political climate.
"A big vote for McCain hurts Obama, a big vote for Obama hurts McCain. A big vote for both of them shows the extent to which New Hampshire voters have become disaffected," he projected
Fergus Cullen, chairman of the state's Republican Party, told the Associated Press that McCain faces a two-front war.
"He is competing with [former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt] Romney for Republican voters, and he is competing with Obama for independents."
More of bellwether than Iowa
After the Iowa caucuses winnow the field of contenders, New Hampshire has historically had a better record of picking the eventual winner of each party's nomination, Wayne said.
"It used to be New Hampshire had an almost-perfect record," he said. "But that record has been marred in recent years. In '92, the 'Comeback Kid' Bill Clinton didn't win New Hampshire or Iowa, for that matter. In 2000, if you looked at the primary, you would have said 'President McCain.' He'd still like you to say that."
In 2000, the last year both parties held primaries in New Hampshire, independents accounted for four of every 10 votes cast in the Republican contest. They supported McCain by about a three-to-one margin over George W. Bush.
On the Democratic side, independents favored former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley. But Vice President Al Gore had overwhelming support among Democrats. He won the primary and later secured the nomination.
In the 2004 Democratic primary, exit polls of voters showed that independents made up 48 percent of the vote and mostly backed Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who won the state and the party's eventual nomination.
With its two-party primary positioned after the Iowa caucuses but before the rest of the nominating contests, New Hampshire is another make-or-break state for many campaigns, Wayne said.
Those with the most to lose this year are Romney and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., after their losses in Iowa, he said. McCain also has the most to gain from a win.
"If they lose again, Romney is practically finished," Wayne said. "Clinton would still have an uphill battle. It's important for McCain. He's got to win somewhere and establish that perception that you're a winner."