Although still favored to win the Democratic nomination (according to pollsters, at least), Hillary Clinton faces the political equivalent of Omaha Beach on D-Day in the primary state of New Hampshire. Victory is by no means a foregone conclusion – and the clock is ticking.

A great deal of it has to do what the Washington Post dubbed “next door advantage.” Vermont is New Hampshire’s neighbor, and many in the Granite State consider Bernie Sanders one of their own. Of course, the New Hampshire caucus – which follows the all-important Iowa Primary – receives massive media attention out of all proportion to the state’s size and population.

According to Richard Perloff, author of Political Communication: Politics, Press and Public in America, Iowa and New Hampshire get at least half of all election coverage during a Presidential cycle. Practically since the dawn of the Television Age in the U.S., the New Hampshire primary has been considered the “proving ground” for Presidential candidates. It is a primary that has held a number of surprises over the decades, and there is a great deal at stake.

If a front-runner stumbles in New Hampshire, it can affect the entire nomination race. Conversely, an underdog might suddenly become a serious contender, even if s/he fails to win – as was the case in 2008 with a Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama. However, here is the most important aspect of the New Hampshire Primary: 40% of the state’s voters are Independent. Since it is an open primary, voters are not required to declare a party affiliation, and anyone of any party can vote for any candidate.

This year, with outsiders like Trump and Sanders riding a wave of populist frustration, that independent voter bloc is invaluable. These are the voters that Clinton must convince – and she has only a little over five weeks to do it. Clinton expects to win the Iowa Caucus handily, but she’s taking nothing for granted in New Hampshire.

Neither is Sanders. Both Democratic candidates are pulling out all the stops to reach those independent voters. Sanders is focusing on the issues that are of greatest concern to independent voters, campaign finance reform and the corrupting influence of money in elections being among them. Clinton is out stumping, but has been less specific about the issues. Instead, she has been appealing to independents in general terms. At a campaign event in the town of Berlin, she said:

Let’s make this happen. I need your help. I need your support. This election will be a make-or-break election. It will be so consequential…I will go anywhere to find common ground with anybody, but I will also stand my ground with you.

Such statements don’t really explain how Clinton would deal with Wall Street, or address the increasing economic inequality and growing poverty in the U.S. However, she has been promoting her economic plan, which involves tax relief for workers, reducing interest on student loans, and investments in public infrastructure projects. The differences between Clinton and Sanders on populist issues are those of degree rather than policy. Sanders is calling for radical reforms, while Clinton believes such reforms can be made incrementally by working within the current system. Given such widespread anger and frustration with the status quo, it seems likely that independent voters would greatly favor Sanders – at least in New Hampshire.

While Clinton is busy trying to win over those voters in the Granite State, she is preparing for defeat. It would be a blow to her campaign, but not necessarily a fatal one, as was demonstrated during her husband’s first run for the White House in 1992. In any event, the New Hampshire race is going to be a tight one. Though Clinton’s numbers have been falling while Sanders’ have been rising, the two are currently separated by just over 5 percentage points.

One thing that Clinton has going in her favor is endorsements from the Democratic establishment in New Hampshire. She has the support of Governor Hassan as well as Senator Jeanne Shaheen and several state lawmakers. Clinton’s campaign also operates like a well-oiled, precision machine. That was pointed out by local liberal talk show host Arnie Arnesen, who adds that Clinton’s main advantage is “her Rolodex.”

On the other hand, Sanders – unlike Clinton – has been very consistent about where he stands on the issues. One Progressive activist told National Public Radio, “This guy hasn’t changed his tune; he’s really talking about what he believes.” Another Sanders supporter, a photographer burdened with $70,000 in student loan debt, said, “I don’t trust Hillary…I just don’t believe everything she says. I feel like Bernie Sanders is like somebody that speaks what’s on his mind.” Sanders also has an incredible groundswell of grass roots support.

Both candidates will be making frequent appearances between now and February 8th. If nothing else, it should make for a nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat primary contest in which anything can happen – and usually does.

K.J. McElrath is a former history and social studies teacher who has long maintained a keen interest in legal and social issues. In addition to writing for The Ring of Fire, he is the author of two published novels: Tamanous Cooley, a darkly comic environmental twist on Dante's Inferno, and The Missionary's Wife, a story of the conflict between human nature and fundamentalist religious dogma. When not engaged in journalistic or literary pursuits, K.J. works as an entertainer and film composer.