MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Barring a calamity, George Bush and Dan Quayle will lead the Republican ticket in the 1992 presidential election, precisely one year from this date.
But the identity of their Democratic opposition remains a mystery.
Yesterday, five of the six announced Democratic contenders took an important step toward resolving that mystery in New Hampshire, the nation's first presidential primary state.
Standing beneath a tennis-court-sized U.S. flag, the candidates took turns trashing Mr. Bush in speeches before an enthusiastic crowd of Democratic partisans at the National Guard armory in Manchester.
And in a clear sign that the nomination might be worth something after all as Mr. Bush's poll numbers decline, the Democratic hopefuls also began aiming sharp jabs at one
"There are those who say we should not bash Bush. Well, if not us, who? And if not now, when?" thundered Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa.
The deep economic recession, which has left New Hampshire and much of New England gasping for air, provided a ready source of rhetorical ammunition.
Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska said that Mr. Bush "deserves to be attacked" for failing to offer economic leadership. He cited a banner front-page headline in the state's largest newspaper yesterday reporting that food stamp use in New Hampshire is up 51 percent over last year, the steepest rise in the nation.
Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder, the lone black candidate in the race now after the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson confirmed that he won't run, criticized Mr. Bush's "shameful" record on civil rights.
Mr. Wilder said that the president's "phony, divisive talk about quotas" helped spur the rise of Republican state Representative David Duke, the former Klansman running for governor of Louisiana.
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton recalled how Mr. Bush had salvaged his candidacy here in the 1988 primary and then "forgot about New Hampshire." Mr. Clinton then rattled off statistics about this state's first-in-the-nation ranking in personal bankruptcies and its soaring welfare and bank failure rates.
"George Bush, come to New Hampshire and see the damage you're doing to this state," demanded former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, comparing the Atlantic storm that ravaged Mr. Bush's vacation mansion in nearby Maine last week to the prolonged economic destruction wrought by "Hurricane George."
Mr. Tsongas, whose long-shot candidacy needs a strong showing in the primary here Feb. 18, also singled out Mr. Harkin for having solicited campaign contributions from political action committees.
"Tom, give the money back," Mr. Tsongas said in his convention speech.
When the two candidates met backstage, amid a crowd of reporters, the Iowan rebuked Mr. Tsongas for having confronted him.
"Why don't you start talking about the Republicans and all their fat-cat money?" Mr. Harkin remarked acidly.
"Let's not start attacking each other."
Meanwhile, Mr. Wilder tried to repair damage from a flap over his criticism of Mr. Clinton, remarks Mr. Wilder later tried to deny having made.
In an interview last week with Jill Lawrence of the Associated Press, Mr. Wilder accused Mr. Clinton of using the David Duke campaign as an excuse to "start coming on strong" about welfare reform and making "poor welfare recipients the whipping boy" of the recession.
When Mr. Clinton questioned Mr. Wilder about the remarks in Friday's joint television appearance, Mr. Wilder flatly denied having made the statement. That same evening Mr. Wilder told reporters that he had not even spoken with the AP reporter about Mr. Clinton.
But yesterday, Mr. Wilder backed down.
He acknowledged the accuracy of the AP report while continuing to maintain that he had not disparaged Mr. Clinton.
Less than 3 1/2 months remain until the New Hampshire primary, which, as politicians here never tire of repeating, has been won by every candidate who went on to win the presidency since 1952.
The state's political influence could be enhanced in the 1992 race because of Mr. Harkin's anticipated victory in the Feb. 10 precinct caucuses in his home state of Iowa, which has lessened the importance of that early contest.
New Hampshire Democratic Chairman Chris Spirou estimates that 85 percent of his state's Democratic voters are still undecided.
But a statewide poll, published last week in the Boston Herald, showed that New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo would be the overwhelming favorite to win the New Hampshire primary if he decided to run. Mr. Cuomo is expected to announce his plans this month, perhaps as early as this week.