Cynical N.H. voters take tough stand with hopefuls Candidates asked to address economy

January 12, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Sun Staff Correspondent

DOVER, N.H. -- Steaming mounds of meatballs and grilled chicken wings lie untouched. Pretzels and chips get few takers. Even the bar is deserted.

As 150 New Hampshire voters jam a function room at the Friendship Inn for a chance to hear Democratic candidate

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, they are far more interested in diving for good seats than free food.

With the presidential primary just five weeks away, voters here are hungry for answers.

At small gatherings from the White Mountains to the coast, they're peppering the candidates with hard questions about restoring prosperity to this once-booming corner of the country.

"In a way, we're having a job interview, aren't we?" Mr. Clinton tells the crowd.

The Feb. 18 primary will reveal which Oval Office-seekers were most impressive in that process and provide the first tangible clues about the contours of the presidential race. Among the questions being studied: Will the slumping economy prove to be a political minefield for George Bush and a potential gold mine for his rivals in both parties?

Despite its small size -- 40th in population among the states -- and almost complete lack of minority residents, New Hampshire seems an appropriate test market for Campaign '92. The jobless rate, a key political indicator, closely matches the national average. But the sharp contrast with the prosperous 1980s here has voters in an unusually ornery mood, a treacherous environment for contenders in both parties.

As folks in the Granite State never tire of reminding visitors, no one has been elected president since a primary was first held here in 1952 without winning here first. And this time, New Hampshire's importance in the sorting-out process looms larger than it has in decades.

Among Democrats, the late-starting campaign and the lack of a nationally known candidate have left the party without an obvious front-runner, although Mr. Clinton appears to be the early favorite.

With political contributions hard to come by, any candidate who fares poorly in the primary could quickly find himself without the money to stay in the race. The winner, particularly if it is Mr. Clinton, could be in excellent shape heading into the big round of Southern and border-state primaries in early March.

Many politicians think New Hampshire could effectively eliminate many as three of the five major Democratic hopefuls. The withdrawal last week of Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder's was due in no small part to his failure to attract early support here, despite several campaign visits.

On the Republican side, the deep plunge in the state's economy, which has cost 50,000 people their jobs and driven the value of houses sharply downward, has provided an opening for a conservative challenge to President Bush, something that was unthinkable in the aftermath of last year's war in the Persian Gulf.

Bush strategists concede that columnist Patrick J. Buchanan has the potential to attract a sizable protest vote here. There are predictions he could get 35 percent to 40 percent or more of the GOP primary total, which would be a serious political setback for Mr. Bush.

"If that happened, he'd have to pay more attention to the nomination race than he would like, and it would make it even more difficult for him to get something through the Congress, because they [Democrats] are going to smell a wounded presidency," said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general who is advising the Bush forces here.

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson dropped his bid for re-election after anti-war candidate Eugene McCarthy drew 42 percent against him in New Hampshire. No one expects Mr. Bush to quit, although his advisers don't exclude the possibility that the president could lose to Mr. Buchanan in New Hampshire.

Mr. Buchanan, dismissed by some as a one-state candidate, has begun to target discontented GOP voters in other early primary states suffering economic troubles, including Maryland (March 3).

In an effort to stop the Buchanan campaign in New Hampshire, Mr. Bush will make at least three trips to the state, two more than initially planned. The Bush campaign strategy was previewed last week by Vice President Dan Quayle, who repeatedly assured state voters during a two-day bus tour that the administration had "gotten the message" about the economic situation here.

Bush campaign aides pronounced themselves highly pleased with the largely enthusiastic reception accorded Mr. Quayle, and an unscientific survey of prospective voters around the state last week suggested that Mr. Buchanan might encounter some difficulty converting anti-Bush sentiment into support for his candidacy.

Typical of those who expressed reservations was Rick Sundman, 41, a self-described "bleeding-heart conservative" who confronted Mr. Quayle with a critical question about the administration's economic policies during a breakfast meeting Thursday in Littleton.

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