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Wooing ends; N.H. voters decide

With only hours to go before today's New Hampshire primary, Chris Rogers was still trying to pick a candidate.

A few months ago, he was a Howard Dean supporter. He liked Dean's fire-and-brimstone speeches and believed the former Vermont governor was just the guy to shake up Washington.

But Rogers, a regional marketing representative for an auto manufacturer, grew disenchanted with Dean's verbal gaffes and his hollering in Iowa a week ago.

"You don't want a guy like that in an operating room _ let alone the Oval Office," Rogers said.

And so Rogers spent the last week shopping for a candidate. This is the story of his shopping trip.

He is an independent, an elusive group that accounts for 38 percent of New Hampshire's voters. Although they are not affiliated with a party, most identify with the Republicans or Democrats and usually vote that way. Rogers, who in 2000 voted for John McCain in the primary and George W. Bush in the general election, is a special breed, a true swing voter.

With the race so close _ the final polls Monday showed Sen. John Kerry ahead, but Dean was gaining ground _ swing voters could play a decisive role today. State officials are predicting a record turnout.

Rogers, 40, a divorced father of a seventh-grade daughter, takes voting seriously. He reads newspapers and watches political coverage on MSNBC. He listens to Imus and reads about the candidates on the Internet.

He voted for Bush in 2000 because he didn't like Al Gore's changing personas ("You didn't know which Gore was going to show up," Rogers said). But he is unhappy with Bush because of the Iraq war and because Bush hasn't done enough to help manufacturing companies.

Everyone wanted Rogers' vote.

He got e-mails from the Dean campaign after he attended a "meetup" with other supporters. Rogers said the Dean backers were mostly twentysomethings who were naive about how easily Dean could change Washington. But he liked Dean's spirit, at least for a while.

He got several telephone calls from the campaigns of Sen. John Kerry, Wesley Clark and Sen. Joe Lieberman. They were "robo-calls" _ messages recorded by the candidates and placed by a computer. Rogers didn't like being called by a machine and ignored them.

He lost enthusiasm for Dean after the candidate said the world was not necessarily safer after Saddam Hussein was captured. Rogers was no fan of the Iraq war, but he thought that comment was ridiculous. Then came more Dean gaffes. The hollering speech last week was the final straw, he said.

It was time to shop.

Rogers took time to see several candidates in person. Last Tuesday, he spent his lunch hour watching Kerry at a local college.

Kerry attacked Bush's "creed of greed" and tax loopholes for big corporations.

"The motto of this administration is, "No special interest left behind,' " Kerry said.

Rogers was intrigued but not inspired. Kerry had a monotone delivery and Rogers was afraid Republicans would label him as "a Massachusetts liberal." On Sunday, Rogers went to a local high school to hear John Edwards. The North Carolina senator attacked the Bush administration for coddling big corporations.

"I'll tell you what we ought to do with these Washington lobbyists," Edwards said in his Carolina drawl. "We ought to cut them off at the knees!"

His message was similar to Kerry's, but Edwards, a former trial lawyer, seemed more positive and persuasive, Rogers said.

"I went in thinking this is Dan Quayle with an accent," Rogers said. "He's got some substance."

Monday morning, Rogers was leaning toward Edwards but decided to see Wesley Clark on his lunch hour, just in case Clark inspired him.

Rogers stood in the frigid cold outside Nashua City Hall for 25 minutes because Clark was late. When the candidate finally arrived, he spoke for less than five minutes.

"I'm not a Washington insider. I'm an outsider," said the former NATO supreme commander. "I'm not part of the problem. I'm the solution."

Clark, looking harried, tried to chat up voters, but had little luck amid the vast crowd of reporters and photographers. When an actual voter appeared near the throng, a campaign aide pleaded with the media: "Let the voter through, please!"

Rogers was not impressed. He had read that Clark had flip-flopped on the war and other issues.

So the decision was sealed: He will vote for Edwards.

_ Times political editor Adam C. Smith contributed to this report.