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Brother's death in Iraq to color sister's vote

  • Story Highlights
  • Erin Flanagan's brother Michael Cleary was killed in Iraq two years ago
  • Flanagan asked candidates questions about war at GOP debate this summer
  • Sen. John McCain visited Flanagan's New Hampshire house after debate
  • Flanagan torn between supporting Barack Obama and McCain in primary

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By John King
CNN Washington bureau
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BEDFORD, New Hampshire (CNN) -- Erin Flanagan is a mother of three who beams at the sight of her children sledding and thoughts of their coming Christmas joy.

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Sen. John McCain visits Erin Flanagan's home in Bedford, New Hampshire.

And yet she is also a Gold Star sister whose grief is exacerbated during the holiday season.

"My little brother Michael Cleary was killed in Iraq."

Cleary died two years ago this week in Taji, and the pain and memories not only put a cloud over the holiday season but also will influence the choice Flanagan has less than a month to make.

"It has devastated my family and colored the way that I look at the world," Flanagan told CNN during a recent visit to her home in Bedford, a town that's a short drive from Manchester. "And it will also affect my decision in this election."

Her vote could be more important than some in the first-in-the-nation primary state. As an "undeclared" or independent voter, Flanagan can choose to vote in either the GOP or Democratic primary January 8. And at the moment she is torn between two presidential candidates whose standing in the Granite State could be dramatically shaped by how many independents come their way: Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain.

Why is she drawn to Democrat Obama and Republican McCain?

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"Ability to be able to reach across the aisle and get things done. I think that is something that we vitally need in a leader," Flanagan says. "Which is why I am considering both of them, and I know that's a very unique situation. ... I could vote either way, and they are very different candidates."

McCain won her respect at a Republican debate in New Hampshire six months ago, when she posed this question to the GOP hopefuls:

"As a member of an American family who has suffered so greatly at the choices made by the current administration, I desperately would like to know what you as commander in chief would do. ...."

McCain's response left an impression.

"This war was very badly managed for a long time," the senator from Arizona said. But he went on to talk about the "surge," the strategy shift of additional troops in Iraq then in its early phase, saying: "This is long and hard and tough -- but I think we can succeed."

McCain called after the debate, and Flanagan invited him to dinner. She figured nothing would come of it -- but the McCain camp called back and said not only did the senator want to visit, but he also wanted to bring along his son, Jimmy, who was preparing to deploy to Iraq with the Marines.

Flanagan sat the senator next to her mother, who fiercely opposes the war.

"He was respectful and so very kind to her," Flanagan says. "With these two very different people sitting at our table, he maintained his position. I know that politics do not enter his decision-making; he is doing what he believes is right and best for our country."

Her children were sold by dessert. As Flanagan puts it, they thought McCain was a nice man "and he liked mommy's cookies."

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And yet she is not sure she can vote for him -- because she is not sure whether McCain is right when he says the troops need to stay and succeed, or whether Obama is right when he says it is past time to bring them home as quickly as possible.

"I want my vote to best serve the troops and the families of the military," Flanagan says. "I don't know the best way to get out of the situation that we're in now. I'm struggling." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About John McCainBarack ObamaNew HampshireIraq War

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