By KEN THOMAS
MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) - Political mailers are stuffed in their front doors and the phone rings nonstop. Under a fall canopy of crimson and golden leaves, the battle for independent voters is being waged hour by hour in battleground New Hampshire.
The state offers only four electoral votes in next week's presidential election, but President Barack Obama and challenger Mitt Romney are vying fiercely here for the remaining independent voters, who are decidedly ambivalent about either candidate.
Obama won a majority of independent voters in 2008 with visions of a post-partisan administration that could break the logjam in Washington after eight years under George W. Bush. But the gridlock remains and Obama and Romney are now competing for a rapidly diminishing number of independent voters, who could comprise 30 percent or more of the electorate in a series of must-win states.
Polling by Pew Research found Obama and Romney virtually tied among independents throughout the fall, but the Republican has opened up a small lead with this group in recent days. Polling by The Washington Post and ABC News shows Romney leading among independents, findings which Romney's campaign points to as evidence of independents breaking his way.
"I probably will go with Romney," said Don Hodgman, an undecided Democrat from Manchester who voted for Obama last time. "I hate to say it _ it's the lesser of two evils."
In nearby Nashua, Patty Cardin, an independent who works in retail, pointed to the vanity plate on her silver Chrysler Sebring. "My license plate says it all _ FAITH," said Cardin, who voted absentee for Obama because she was turned off by the Republican's views on abortion.
"It was just a sense in my gut," she said outside her gym. "Obama is a little bit closer to getting us on the track to where we need to be."
Obama's campaign says it still holds a slight advantage with independents, approaching _ but not quite reaching _ his level of support in 2008, when he won independents by about 8 points over Republican John McCain.
Independent voters are hardly monolithic _ some tend to vote for Democrats while others lean Republican. But their reach is considerable in a close election because they form sizable blocs in battleground states.
In 2008, independents comprised 30 percent or more of the electorate in New Hampshire, Colorado, Iowa, Nevada and Ohio and approached that level in Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Virginia, making their support even more critical this time around.
"Independents will decide the next president of the United States," said Romney pollster Neil Newhouse. "It's as simple as that."
Romney has tried to shift to the middle during the fall, offering a moderate face while pursuing independents with a message of economic growth and fiscal restraint, warning that Obama's policies have driven up the federal debt to levels that could saddle future generations.
Obama says the nation needs balance in reducing budget deficits while maintaining spending priorities, all while warning independent women that Romney could infringe upon their access to birth control and threaten the Supreme Court's holding in Roe v. Wade, the ruling establishing abortion rights.
An Associated Press-GfK poll conducted Oct. 19-23 found Romney with a slight lead among independent registered voters, but the survey showed a tepid attitude toward both candidates. About 40 percent said they had a positive impression of Obama, and 46 percent said they viewed Romney favorably. Only about one-third said they were optimistic that the economy will improve in the next year, a much smaller percentage than those registered voters who do favor a party.
The ambiguity puts a premium on both campaigns' ability to court these voters and raises questions over whether some independents will simply stay home. Some view Obama as a disappointment, saying he failed to break the stalemate in Washington and move swiftly to bolster the economy. Others are dubious of Romney's message, pointing to his shifting views during his political career in Massachusetts and now in his second presidential campaign.
In New Hampshire, independents formed about 45 percent of the electorate in 2008, making the quest for these voters a crucial part of the campaign.
Both the Obama and Romney campaigns are dispatching volunteers to the doorsteps of independents and undecided voters and keeping open a steady line of communication to try to lock in votes. Both campaigns estimate about 10 percent of New Hampshire voters may still be up for grabs _ with many from the ranks of independents or the independent-minded _ but agree those numbers are dwindling by the day.