Fineman: It's Independents' Day

Whatever Hollywood says a presidential candidate is supposed to look like, Ron Paul isn't it. At 72, wearing mall-walking shoes and an inquisitive smile, he looks like a retired obstetrician, which he is. His platform is hardly from central casting, either. He not only wants U.S. troops home from Iraq, he wants them home from the rest of the planet. He wants to abolish an alphabet of federal agencies and the income tax, dismantle the Patriot Act, reconnect the dollar to the price of gold, decriminalize prostitution and call an end to the drug war. Seated in the House Speaker's Lobby, he speaks matter-of-factly, like a doctor describing an easy delivery. "This is my freedom message," says the Texas representative. "People have to be left alone."

Much of the world dismisses Paul as a libertarian crank. But mainstream candidates from Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama to Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney have good reason to watch him. That reason's called the New Hampshire primary. Always unpredictable—there's not even a date set for it yet—the primary is more mysterious now because a record 44 percent of voters have registered "undeclared." Suspicious of established politics, with an antiwar sentiment stretching back to Vietnam, they decide at the last minute. Since they can vote in either party's race, their migrations choose the outcome in both. In 2000, two thirds asked for GOP ballots, boosting John McCain and dooming Bill Bradley, who was going after the same voters.

This time, Obama, Giuliani and Mc Cain are the big names fishing in the sea of independents. But conditions have changed: it's expected that two thirds of those voters will take part in the Democratic contest, which could be Obama's main, or last, chance. His yearning to change a "broken political system" is a good hook, but only if he can convince voters he has the guts and skill to do it. He has work to do: a recent Marist College poll shows Clinton leading him among independents 38 to 29 percent. A hot Democratic race would be bad for McCain and Giuliani, whose appeal rests in part on their perceived distance from GOP orthodoxy. The arithmetic of the undeclared is one reason Romney is sprinting to the right and why Mike Huckabee is getting a look in the state.

As George W. Bush's Republican coalition falls apart, its rougher edges become more visible and Paul's small-government, isolationist message gets heard. Many New Hampshirites see the state's Live Free or Die motto as an article of faith, and they blame mushrooming federal deficits as much on the GOP as on the Democrats. "Independents are so mad about spending they can't see straight," says Jennifer Donahue of Saint Anselm College in Manchester. These voters loathe the war in Iraq, too. "They are as antiwar as anyone here, maybe more so," she says.

For now, Paul is a blip on New Hampshire's radar; in a recent poll, he stood at 5 percent among independents. But that could change. He's banked more than $5 million, recently raised more in the state than most other candidates, has a huge Web presence and just bought $1.1 million in New Hampshire TV ads. His staff is inexperienced, but smart. Andy Smith, a pollster at University of New Hampshire, says Paul could get 10 to 20 percent of the vote in the GOP race. That would be a dramatic story, but maybe not one most Republicans would want to read.