Undecided voters give Obama hope in 2008 race

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ALTON, New Hampshire, Nov 21 (Reuters) David Tothill is neither a Republican nor a Democrat but he knows what he wants in the 2008 White House race -- a fresh face.

''I like to believe that we can have a leader whose family name is not Bush or Clinton,'' said the 53-year-old retired software engineer after hearing Democratic presidential contender Barack Obama speak. ''I like what Obama had to say.'' The Illinois senator is counting on voters like Tothill, one of many undecided independent voters who can vote in either the Republican or Democratic primary in the influential early voting state of New Hampshire, well ahead of the November 2008 election.

Obama has an uphill task. New York Sen. Hillary Clinton leads in national polls as well as in New Hampshire six weeks before the start of the state-by-state battle for the Democratic nomination.

A CNN/WMUR poll by the University of New Hampshire released yesterday showed Clinton's lead widening over the past two weeks to nine points from six points in the state that traditionally holds the first presidential primary. One sign of hope for Obama -- almost half of Democratic voters have not finally decided.

There are some tentative signs that the fight for the Democratic nomination may be tightening. A Washington Post-ABC News poll on Monday showed Obama opening a four-point lead over Clinton in Iowa, within the statistical margin of error.

''He (Obama) is the new face. I think New Hampshire voters respond to that,'' said Boston University politics professor Thomas Whalen.

''He doesn't seem like someone who goes by the traditional script. He's actually saying things that are different and New Hampshire voters, typically younger voters, respond to that.'' In New Hampshire, the former first lady has aggressively courted both blue-collar, working-class Democrats and liberal, wealthier voters.

Obama took to the campaign trail in the gritty New England state this week stressing the need for a new political era in Washington. With the primary likely to take place on January 8, he plans to return next week, knowing that a Clinton victory could give her irresistible momentum.

''I hear candidates say, 'Elect me because I know how to play the game better in Washington.' We don't need somebody who plays the game better. We need somebody to put an end to the game-playing,'' Obama told several hundred students and residents at a town hall meeting in Alton, New Hampshire.

University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala said Obama needs to do better among middle class liberals.

''They've got status jobs. They are professionals. They are lawyers. They've got a college education or more. That should be Obama's core constituency, and I think they right now are trying to figure out what to do,'' he said.

On the campaign trail in New Hampshire this week, Obama drew large audiences and seemed to be connecting.

''I feel the hopefulness that Barack Obama has,'' said Chris Conlon, 39, of Pittsfield. ''He's inspired me to ... really reach out and volunteer and talk to my neighbors a little bit more. That's not politics as usual.'' ''He listens to people,'' added Francis Warman, 64, a psychologist from Hopkinton.

History teaches that many New Hampshire voters wait until the last moment to decide which gives both Clinton and Obama plenty of time to change minds.

''Even among people who are committed, there's tremendous volatility,'' said Alan Reische, an attorney from Manchester. ''I don't get the sense that people are absolutely decided and that we are looking at rigid voting blocks. New Hampshire is very contrarian.'' REUTERS SK VC1216

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