Preoccupied New Hampshire voters say politics can wait On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

February 27, 1991|By Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

DERRY, N.H. — Derry, N.H

EUGENE Robichaux says he is "sort of a semi-activist Democrat." He likes to follow the candidates and vote in the presidential primary every four years. He has been known to contribute $20 to a favorite candidate. But he is not feeling any lack in his life because the campaign hasn't started a year ahead of time as it usually does.

"Most people don't pay attention anyway," he says. "They're thinking about making a living and Jack W.Germond &JulesWitcoversending the kids to college and taking care of grandma. You can worry about politics when the time comes."

Random interviews with voters in shops and restaurants from Derry north toward Concord evoke responses almost universally similar. Candace Howley, a clerk in a women's wear store, speaks for many when she says: "With the war and all, nobody wants to hear about the politicians. There'll be plenty of time for that next year."

Indeed, the pattern is clear enough, even from such an unscientific sampling, to make it obvious, first, that those Democrats who may be planning to run against President Bush next year have been wise to put their ambitions on ice during the war and, second, that fretting about the time they are losing among activists and operatives in Iowa and here in New Hampshire doesn't reflect the political context in which the 1992 campaign will be conducted. No one is in a rush.

"I got a neighbor who's big in Democratic politics and he's chomping at the bit," says Bernard Greene, a vending machine serviceman who lives near Nashua.

"He keeps telling me about all the things they have to do to get ready for the primary. But I tell him he's crackers, there's still a year to go and people have got other things on their minds, like making a living in hard times."

Some veterans of the political wars here agree. J. Joseph Grandmaison, a former state party chairman and political operative who has been involved in primaries back to 1972, says candidates don't really need their organizations in place before next Jan. 1 when voters will be willing to focus on the race.

And to meet that timetable, he says, a candidate could come into the state as late as this spring or early summer to begin making the initial contacts, then use the late summer and fall "to begin to fill in the holes."

When the candidate spends too much early time in the state, he says, "you run out of things to do."

Grandmaison does argue, however, that "what is most at stake here in New Hampshire is who comes in first" -- meaning that the party activists are so eager to sign up many of them will enlist with the candidates who move into the state soonest.

Just how important those activists will be is, nonetheless, open to question. The conventional wisdom for a generation has been that grass-roots political organization is critical in both the Iowa precinct caucuses and the primary here. And candidates in both parties have spent as long as two years putting together committees of supporters in both states.

But the game has changed even in Iowa and New Hampshire. A strong organization can make a difference in some cases. George Bush, for example, was saved from plunging into the political depths after his Iowa loss in 1988 by his organization here. Four years earlier, in a Democratic primary, Gary Hart was positioned to upset Walter F. Mondale because he had an organization in place to capitalize on the instant celebrity he earned on television from finishing second in Iowa.

But the results these days usually turn on how the candidate appears on television in both his commercials and on the news. Four years ago Richard Gephardt won the Iowa caucuses not because he had spent more than a year building an organization but because he came up with a dynamite commercial on an issue, trade, that touched a nerve with Iowa Democrats. And Bush defeated Bob Dole here not because of his organization but because he used both free and paid media to depict Dole as favoring higher taxes.

The activists in both parties wait anxiously through every four-year cycle for the time when they can choose their candidates and begin the campaign. Usually they are already out there by this time. But this time, as Gene Robichaux puts it, "Politics can always wait on a war, and this year the Red Sox got a real shot, so it's no big deal."

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