President Bush goes on the offensive in New Hampshire On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

February 10, 1992|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

Manchester, N.H. -- A bumper sticker plastered on the walls of President Bush's re-election headquarters here in the Granite State says: "New Hampshire Don't Take It For Granite." And the beehive of activity now going forward indicates that the Bush campaign is taking play on words to heart.

After weeks of warnings from local Republican leaders that the dire state of the New Hampshire economy was making challenger Patrick Buchanan a real threat, the Bush strategists have a game plan in operation to blunt it on the stump, at the doorstep and on the airwaves.

The plan is geared to hit its peak next Wednesday when the president formally announces his candidacy and flies here for the first of two days of intensive homestretch campaigning before the Feb. 18 Republican primary.

On Bush's first visit in mid-January, he sought to counter Buchanan's charges of neglect by expressing his concern, saying he was listening to voters' complaints and telling them to "stay tuned" to his approaching State of the Union message.

That pitch, though widely criticized in the press, is said by Bush strategists to have held the line until that speech. Now Bush campaign ads are flooding the airwaves with large chunks of audio and video featuring the president's declaration that the recession, like the invasion of Kuwait, "will not stand."

While largely ignoring Buchanan, the ads are zeroing in on a potentially more vulnerable target the Democratic-controlled Congress. After setting a deadline of March 20 for congressional action on the economic package he proposed in his State of the Union speech, Bush in his commercials has been asking voters "to send a real message to Congress to get this job (of economic recovery) done."

A new ad reminding voters of the success of Desert Storm and the collapse of communism during Bush's watch is designed to focus on his presidential stature and New Hampshire's unique role in the election-year process. "In New Hampshire," one ad notes, "we have a special responsibility. We just don't vote, we choose presidents." The unspoken suggestion is that Buchanan is not presidential material.

The decision not to use openly negative ads against Buchanan not yet, anyway comes at a time the Bush strategists have concluded that Buchanan's ads attacking the president for having broken his no-new-taxes pledge have run too long and have become too strident. One of them concludes with a group of voters shouting "Read our lips!" a play on Bush's earlier "read my lips" pledge on taxes.

In focusing on Congress, Bush has in effect made the primary here a referendum on his economic proposals. One of his local political advisers, former state Attorney General Tom Rath, says the Bush campaign is "recognizing reality" in doing so, because the vote here will be interpreted in Congress as a measure of the president's public strength.

Gov. Judd Gregg, New Hampshire chairman of the Bush campaign, insists that he has always expected a close race against Buchanan and is working accordingly. College volunteers have been papering the state with pro-Bush literature, as many as 20,000 pieces a weekend, and Rath says he believes the anti-Bush sentiment fanned by Buchanan has been slowed, but still exists.

"We could beat 60 (percent) or we could lose, it's so volatile," he says. But with all campaign cylinders going now, also including an intensive direct-mail effort, the Bush operatives appear to be breathing a bit easier.

They are also trying to keep the New Hampshire primary in perspective. Even if the president should be upset here, one ranking re-election strategist says, there is no possibility that he might emulate President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1968 and quit the race. New Hampshire because of its economic trouble is regarded as probably Bush's most difficult state this year, and as in 1988 the South looms as a strong firewall for him to bounce back from any intimidating showing here by Buchanan.

Mr. Buchanan of late has been trying to make a case for himself beyond his case against Bush, but the Bush operatives see it as a mighty hard sell. "Most people are telling us we don't need a talk-show host running for president," says Mark Rivers, the Bush political director for New Hampshire. "Who's next, Geraldo?"

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