MANCHESTER,N.H. — Manchester N.H. ---IN THE USUALLY bustling Mall of New Hampshire just down the highway, huge bargains can be had. In virtually every store in the sprawling shopping mall, signs proclaim sales with savings of as much as 70 percent.
January traditionally sees lower prices to draw in customers during the post-Christmas doldrums. But what is going on now is a yardstick of the recession that has hit New Hampshire particularly hard -- and that clouds President Bush's re-election in November. Casual conversations with shoppers and clerks here over the course of three hours suggest that while there remains a significant amount of support for Bush in the state that put him on the road to the Republican nomination in 1988, it is not wholehearted by any means, and sometimes downright shaky.
On a day the president was campaigning elsewhere in the state, Paul Lynn, manager of South Philly Steak and Fries, had this to say: "He seems to have his mind on foreign affairs. He should be more interested in New England. He's a dollar short on taking care of things here. . . . I think he's done a lot of great things, but what comes to mind is "no new taxes." I have two kids and another on the way. You wouldn't believe the taxes I pay."
Still, said Lynn, a 1988 Bush voter, "he's in the middle of something big and we shouldn't disrupt that. He's made great strides for peace, but he needs to concentrate on what's going on around here."
Les Eastman, a retiree sitting on a mall bench with his wife Mary, expressed the ambivalence toward Bush of several others interviewed. "I was very proud of him during Desert Storm," he said. "I thought he did a terrific job, but it's been all downhill since. I think he's forgotten about the common people."
Although those interviewed were split on whether Bush should be re-elected, there was wide agreement on the point about Bush's focus on foreign affairs raised by Paul Lynn. "He's not responsible for the economic situation," said Carole Hudoba, a clerk in a greeting-card shop, "but I think he needs to stay in the states and take care of things."
Such comments might indicate that all the president needs to do is, as challenger Pat Buchanan has suggested here, put "a Denver Boot on Air Force One." But a new national poll, conducted cooperatively by a Republican and a Democrtic pollster, suggests Bush's political trouble runs deeper.
The survey, by Republican Ed Goeas and Democrat Celinda Lakewith separate analyses by each, found that since June voters have shifted the blame for the poor economy. They now rate the Democrats slightly ahead in coping with it, think the Republicans have not invested enough in domestic needs and are the greater threat to the economy in the future. This is so even though they say cutting wasteful government spending offers the best solution -- a prime GOP argument.
Equally surprising, the survey shows that voters think the Democrats in Congress and an unspecified Democratic presidential nominee would do better on every issue tested except national defense and fighting crime, including creating jobs and reducing unemployment. The Democrats are rated better now even on reducing the budget deficit, controlling inflation, keeping the country prosperous, handling taxes and spending and sharing voters' values. And remember that the data was collected by Republican and Democratic pollsters working together.
Each pollster, to be sure, puts his own spin on the findings. Goeas says that just as Bush's strength was overstated after the gulf war, now it is understated. Still, he suggests that unless the president becomes "the aggressive George Bush who draws the line in the dirt and dares the Democrat candidates to cross," he will be in trouble. And he worries about the anti-incumbent mood flooding the electorate.
Lake, not surprisingly, reads the data as indicating "the president is in a fight for his life." Both agree that, as Goeas says, "President Bush has almost slipped down to what would be considered the base Republican presidential vote." And whereas the same pair predicted in June that Bush was on his way to re-election with 59 percent of the vote, they now say the numbers suggest he could lose with only 47 percent.
All this is, notably, without an identifiable Democratic foe. But the figures, like the reservations expressed at the mall of New Hampshire, indicate the president has his political work cut out for him.