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Undecideds key to N.H. decision

True to tradition, New Hampshire voters waited until the last minute to decide how to vote in today's presidential primary, so the candidates stayed busy Monday trying to sway them.

"We've had snow jobs for so long that the country is in a mess," said Grace Zurbruegg, 75, a Democrat from Concord. "That's why so many people are undecided."

That's also why the outcome was impossible to predict. The polls still showed former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas with a healthy lead over Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, and the other candidates trailing. But with 62 people on the ballot and write-in campaigns for Ralph Nader and Mario Cuomo, anything could happen in the nation's first primary.

The candidates spent the cool and sunny day shaking as many hands, visiting as many towns and repeating as many promises as they could.

Clinton and columnist Pat Buchanan, whose right-wing challenge has put a scare into President Bush, rode in caravans through small New Hampshire towns. Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin whipped up campaign workers to get out the vote, and Tsongas spoke at three rallies where undecided voters still were checking him out.

Nebraska Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam War hero, visited VFW and American Legion halls and planned a stop at a bowling alley. Nader, who wants voters to write in his name as a "None of the Above" protest, staged rallies in Nashua and Manchester.

Bush, who spent the weekend campaigning in New Hampshire, settled into the Oval Office on Monday to make calls to New Hampshire Republicans.

Kerrey and former California Gov. Jerry Brown spoke in Concord to about 200 people at a health-care forum sponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons. When the audience was asked for a show of hands, half indicated they had not decided on a candidate.

"It changes every hour," said Harold Pratt of Manchester. At mid-morning Monday, he was leaning toward Kerrey because of his support for national health care.

"I had two knees replaced. Bleeding ulcer. Radiation," said Pratt. "There shouldn't be any argument" about the need for better health care.

Alvah Howland, 68, a retired greenhouse owner, was trying to decide between Buchanan and Bush on the Republican ballot. He had just about settled on Buchanan, even though Buchanan has no health-care plan.

"Neither has Bush. And Bush has had a chance to show it," Howland said.

Still others only knew which candidates they did not want. Marty Capodice, 49, who described himself as a bureaucrat and a "borderline Libertarian," said he dislikes and distrusts Clinton.

"There's something about a slick Southern politician that just makes me retch," said Capodice. "There's something insincere about him."

Clinton will make news when the election returns come in tonight, whether he does well or not.

The presidential race in New Hampshire took an abrupt turn in January when front-runner Clinton was accused of womanizing and dodging the Vietnam draft. Clinton denied the charges, and his supporters _ still numerous _ admire the way he withstood the firestorm. Even President Bush said some of the allegations about Clinton were "quite unfair."

But Clinton's support dropped. Interestingly, few voters say they mind or even believe the allegations against him. But some say they no longer trust Clinton, and many worry that his electability _ perhaps the ultimate qualification for a Democrat this year _ has been damaged.

Clinton lost the backing of people like Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., the author and historian, who said Sunday, "Realistically, his chances of winning in November appear gravely diminished."

The Arkansas governor spent the day saying that second is good enough and that he still will be electable outside New Hampshire. "I've got a campaign based in the South. I've got a campaign based in the West," he said.

But many New Hampshire Democrats looking for another candidate seem to have settled on the unassuming Tsongas. His economic message is similar; indeed, Clinton and Tsongas complimented each other's ideas throughout the campaign. His followers say Tsongas may not be flashy, but he is honest and thoughtful. One Tsongas campaign banner reads, "Substance IS Style."

Ask aides in the various campaigns how their candidates will fare in voting and they all predict surprising strength. Ask if a disappointing vote would end their campaigns and they all deny it. They all vow to forge ahead to Super Tuesday on March 10, which includes the Florida and Texas primaries.

The only prediction state Democratic Chairman Chris Spirou made was for a record turnout. The weather forecast is for rain late in the afternoon with a high of 40. That's considered a beautiful day in wintry New Hampshire.