Bush runs scared, Democrats run against one another

February 16, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Staff Writer

BEDFORD, N.H. -- President Bush, once the invincible man of the 1992 election, is riding hard into Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.

Although his challenger is a television pundit who never ran for office before, Mr. Bush was forced to return to the state for a final weekend of campaigning in hopes of se- curing a big victory.

The president's vulnerability has become a driving force in the Democratic contest as well. Democratic voters, smelling blood, are wondering which of their men has the best chance of defeating him this fall.

But they're smelling their own blood, too. Over the past 10 days, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton was knocked from his lead in the polls by persistent questions about his personal life and Vietnam-era draft status.

The search for someone they can safely back has led Democrats to an unlikely place: the candidacy of former Sen. Paul E. Tsongas of Massachusetts, a cancer survivor and seemingly hopeless long shot who last ran for office 14 years ago.

Despite a subdued manner and a slight speech impediment (Mr. Tsongas is the only candidate in either party who does not talk in his own TV commercials), the 51-year-old Yale-educated lawyer has nonetheless emerged as the surprise favorite to win the Democratic primary.

But a New Hampshire tradition of late-deciding voters has the outcome still in doubt, and a sophisticated write-in effort for New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo only adds to the uncertainty.

Political veterans in both parties say they've never seen anything like this year's campaign, which started slowly amid an atmosphere of deep voter cynicism and distrust of politicians.

On the Republican side, fear and anger over the collapse of a once-booming local economy, plus a growing sense that Mr. Bush is out of touch with ordinary Americans, has fueled a strong protest vote in a state where he has never been wildly popular.

In three campaign visits over the past month, Mr. Bush has tried to persuade skeptical Republicans that he shares their concerns. He says a vote for him would send a message to the Democratic Congress to enact the economic package he announced in his State of the Union speech last month.

After nervously watching Mr. Bush's poll numbers slip last week, the president's campaign advisers here expressed confidence yesterday that he was heading for at least a 2-to-1 victory over challenger Patrick J. Buchanan.

Even that margin, however, would be a political rebuke to the president by members of his own party.

"Any time somebody gets 35 percent of the vote, that's a hit," said Sen. Warren B. Rudman, a New Hampshire Republican and leading Bush supporter.

And some officials of the president's campaign here are still worried that many supporters will stay home on Election Day.

"Either out of anger or frustration," says Thomas D. Rath, an influential Bush campaign adviser in New Hampshire, "people are really opting out of politics as usual."

Mr. Buchanan, a conservative commentator, is running an aggressive campaign, assailing Mr. Bush for breaking the no-new-tax pledge he made here four years ago and accusing him of insensitivity to the needs of average people.

He has run TV commercials in which he calls for a freeze on government spending and term limits on Congress. But the thrust of his campaign is a neo-isolationist "America First" cry for tougher trade policies, which Mr. Bush criticizes as protectionist and potentially harmful to the national interest.

Mr. Buchanan hopes to do well enough Tuesday to carry his challenge against the president into the Georgia primary on March 3. The more than $2.5 million he has raised since announcing his candidacy in December all but assures that his campaign won't end in New Hampshire, regardless of his vote total.

The challenge from the Republican right means that Mr. Bush must devote more energy to the Republican race at a time when his strategists would like him to be gearing up for the fall campaign.

Democrats have hope

And while Mr. Buchanan won't beat Mr. Bush for the nomination, regardless of how well he does in New Hampshire, the Democrats sense they have a real chance of unseating the president in November.

As a result, their primary race, which began as a search for solutions to the sharp economic distress many are experiencing here, is turning, at the end, into a quest for an electable candidate.

But picking a winner has been complicated by charges of marital infidelity and draft avoidance involving Mr. Clinton, the early favorite, whose candidacy had been propelled, in large part, by his claim to be the strongest nominee against Mr. Bush.

After emerging as the early Democratic favorite late last year, Mr. Clinton began beefing up his campaign in New Hampshire, looking for an early knockout in the nomination race. Just a few weeks ago, one of his top consultants, Paul Begala, spoke confidently of a "coup de grace" by mid-March.

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