Hard times in N.H. pose tough primary for Bush

December 08, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,New Hampshire State Senate Economic Development CommitteeSun Staff Correspondent

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The fat, frisky New Hampshire that gave George Bush his first shove toward the White House in 1988 is looking gaunt these days.

Just ask out-of-work truck driver Hank Cappellano, 48, whose plight is indicative of the economic crash diet that the state is enduring.

Back in July 1989, when the construction industry seemed like it might still hold up, Mr. Cappellano bought a $91,000 dump truck. Since then, there's been only enough work to keep him driving for about a month, and the truck now sits idly in a stable behind his house. His wife's job keeps them fed, but they have had to sell a pickup truck and dig deep into savings.

"More often than not, we've been going into the hole every month," he said last week. "If I'm not working by this time next year, then we're in big trouble."

Large institutions have fared no better. Five of the state's biggest banks were taken over by worried regulators in October. The two largest electric power companies are bankrupt. Personal income is in its third straight year of decline. Roughly 44,000 of the state's jobs -- about 8 percent -- have disappeared since the boom year of 1988, forcing thousands onto public assistance and driving thousands more out of the state.

Though the rest of the nation is also suffering economically, the pain in New Hampshire came earlier -- arriving the same month President Bush took office -- and has struck deeper. "There's no question it's the worst since the Great Depression," said Michael Kitch, an economist for the state Senate.

Yet, as in 1988, this is where Mr. Bush must begin his race for the presidency. Victory in New Hampshire's first-in-the-campaign primary -- scheduled for Feb. 18 -- has been a prerequisite for success in every general election since 1952.

That's why it has to concern the president when people such as Mr. Cappellano, who voted for Mr. Bush in 1988, say they're finding little reason to be cheerful this time around. "I know guys who have lost their trucks left and right," said Mr. Cappellano, "and it just gets me crazy when I hear our president say that, technically, we're not in a recession. I just don't understand where the man's coming from."

And Mr. Bush won few friends here with his stubborn opposition to extending unemployment benefits.

For those and other reasons, Mr. Cappellano has turned to conservative newspaper columnist Patrick J. Buchanan as his new political savior.

Mr. Buchanan, a former speechwriter for the Nixon White House, has acquired a national audience with his column and his regular TV appearances on political talk shows. He is scheduled to announce here on Tuesday that he will run against Mr. Bush for the Republican nomination, and recent polls show he is preferred by a potentially embarrassing 20 percent of GOP voters in a state where the majority is Republican.

The other candidate for the GOP nomination, Louisiana state Representative David E. Duke, said last week that he would not enter the primary in New Hampshire because it is too late to organize an effective campaign there.

A new constituency

The woes behind New Hampshire's dissatisfaction with President Bush are widespread but could be found in microcosm last week at the Manchester Shopping Center.

Of 22 storefronts, seven were vacant. The victims ranged from a pizzeria to a pet shop to a place called "Santa Surplus."

Attached to one end of the shopping center was the local office of the state's Employment Security Department. Inside, posted on a bulletin board, was a meager list of 49 job openings, 17 of which were for temporary or part-time help. Of the rest, many required specialized skills, such as a $9-an-hour opening for an electrician. Other listings were for jobs as a fast-food cashier and a bakery cake decorator, each paying $5 an hour. And this was all that the state could offer, a nearby sign stated firmly, in an attempt to ward off futile questions about further possibilities.

Meanwhile, more than 70 people sat in folding chairs awaiting interviews with the agency, with little to do but sip coffee or read newspapers while an intercom droned out the next name in line.

Facing this bleak job market for the past nine months has been John Kivilhan, who has been laid off twice since the slump took hold.

First he saw 20 years of data-processing experience go down the drain when a bank laid him off in January 1989. By year's end he'd swallowed his pride and taken a $5-an-hour job as a store cashier for a discount book chain. A day later he was promoted to store manager, and within three weeks he was a regional manager, earning nearly the $32,000 a year that he made at the height of his computer career.

Then last March came another layoff, and nothing has turned up since. By day, he looks for jobs; by night, he takes four courses toward a degree in marketing. But with each week the strain mounts on his marriage, his family life and his finances.

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