Senator John McCain of Arizona, whose bid for the Republican presidential nomination was all but dead this summer, has made a dramatic recovery in the Granite State 2 1/2 weeks before the 2008 vote, pulling within 3 percentage points of front-runner Mitt Romney, a new Boston Globe poll indicates.
McCain, the darling of New Hampshire voters in the 2000 primary, has the support of 25 percent of likely Republican voters, compared with 28 percent for Romney. Former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani has slid into third place, with 14 percent. A Globe poll of New Hampshire voters last month had Romney at 32 percent, Giuliani at 20 percent, and McCain at 17 percent.
Among Democratic voters, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois has opened up a narrow lead over Senator Hillary Clinton of New York, 30 percent to 28 percent. That, too, represents a major shift from last month's Globe poll, which had Clinton with a 14-point advantage. Former senator John Edwards of North Carolina remained a steady third at 14 percent.
The Globe poll also found wide disparities in voter opinion on domestic issues, with Republicans and Democrats expressing starkly different views on the government's role in healthcare and on whether illegal immigration is a problem.
The survey provided fresh evidence of how tight the primary contests have become in New Hampshire and around the country, adding to a growing sense among political analysts, voters, and the campaigns that neither party has a clear front-runner just days before the crush of primaries begins.
The survey of 422 likely Democratic voters and 410 likely Republican voters in New Hampshire, conducted from Dec. 16 to Dec. 20, has a margin of error for each party subsample of plus or minus 4.9 percentage points.
The races in New Hampshire are still wide open - roughly 40 percent of likely voters in both parties indicated they are still undecided.
But McCain's momentum is striking given that he was essentially written off by the political class and by rivals after weak fund-raising and excessive early spending forced him to completely retool his campaign in July. Since then, his focus on New Hampshire, stumbles by his opponents, and a series of newspaper endorsements have helped him regain traction.
"Republicans talked about the John McCain deathwatch back in the summer," said Andrew E. Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, which conducted the Globe poll. "He's back to the John McCain of 2000."
McCain appears to have gained ground without a surge of support from independent voters, who propelled him to a double-digit win over George W. Bush in the 2000 primary and nearly catapulted him to the GOP nomination. McCain earned more support in the Globe poll from registered Republicans than from "undeclared" voters.
Jimmie Purselley, a 75-year-old retired engineer from Goffstown who was among those surveyed, said in a followup interview that he considered supporting Romney but ultimately "felt more comfortable with McCain."
"I have a high opinion of his ability to stand on his own two feet and say what he needs to say," he said.
In last month's poll, voters indicated they saw Romney as more trustworthy than McCain, but that dynamic has now reversed, with McCain the clear leader in that category. Yet while Romney's support has declined from recent polls, the survey has more ominous signs for Giuliani, who once vied for the lead in New Hampshire.
Giuliani's support has diminished in every category of candidate characteristics - from leadership and experience to electability and judgment.
Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee, despite a surge in polls in Iowa and nationally, has not translated that success to New Hampshire, winning the support of just 10 percent of voters. More than 40 percent of respondents said Huckabee was the leading GOP candidate for whom they were least likely to vote.
On the Democratic side, the poll confirmed Obama's steady rise in New Hampshire in recent weeks, which has turned what had been a strong state for Clinton into a battleground. Aside from a CNN/WMUR poll conducted by UNH last week, which had Clinton with a 12-point edge, surveys have generally shown Obama closing in.
Once trailing Clinton by more than 20 points, Obama appears to have benefited from voters' increasingly positive perceptions of him. Clinton is still viewed by far as the most experienced Democrat, and her supporters are firmest in their preference. But Obama has cut into her leads in the areas of electability and leadership. Voters indicated they also now believe he possesses the best judgment and is the candidate most likely to bring change.
Wendy Damon, a 56-year-old from Tamworth, N.H., who works in manufacturing, said she thought about Clinton, but decided to vote for Obama.
"I just think it's nice to have something fresh - somebody whose approach is not so politically expedient," she said.
One of the major shifts in the Democratic race came in New Hampshire's biggest city, Manchester, which is home to many blue-collar voters. Last month, Clinton led Obama in the Manchester area by a wide margin, 50 percent to 18 percent. But in the new poll, Obama was narrowly ahead among Manchester voters, leading Clinton 33 percent to 31 percent.
On the issue of healthcare, the leading concern of Democrats, 80 percent of likely Democratic voters said it should be the government's responsibility to ensure universal coverage, compared with just 30 percent of Republicans. One aspect of the healthcare debate that has divided Democratic candidates is whether individuals should be required to purchase coverage - Clinton and Edwards favor a mandate, while Obama does not. A slight majority of Democratic voters who were polled - including pluralities of Clinton and Edwards supporters - opposed such a requirement.
The Globe poll also asked voters whether they were concerned about their economic security. Among voters in both parties who said they were concerned, healthcare costs were the biggest reason.
On immigration, a particularly potent issue for the GOP, likely Republican voters in New Hampshire were most concerned about illegal immigrants taking government benefits, and indicated overwhelmingly that stopping the flow of undocumented immigrants into the country should be the top priority. More than 80 percent say they oppose giving driver's licenses to illegal immigrants.
Among Democrats, 42 percent indicated illegal immigration has not been a negative influence on the country. But a plurality of Democrats, 47 percent, indicated they believe that border security should be a higher priority than dealing with those already living the country illegally. A majority of Democratic voters oppose granting illegal immigrants driver's licenses, including a plurality of supporters of Obama, who supports the idea.
Obama and Edwards, neither of whom accept campaign contributions from federal lobbyists or political action committees, saw that position rewarded by Democratic voters. Eighty-four percent of those surveyed said that whether a candidate accepted PAC and lobbyist money was "very important" or "somewhat important" to their vote.
Globe correspondent Kelsey Abbruzzese contributed to this report. Scott Helman can be reached at email@example.com.