N.H. voters get the call in an uncertain primary Bush, Tsongas seen emerging on top amid discontent

February 18, 1992|By Paul West | Paul West,Staff Writer

BEDFORD, N.H. -- An angry and unpredictable New Hampshire electorate casts 1992's first primary vote today, with polls showing Democrat Paul E. Tsongas and President Bush the likely victors.

But as the campaign ended in a last, electronic scramble for undecided votes, there were almost as many unanswered questions as when the politicking began months ago.

Democrats still don't know if New Hampshire will propel someone -- either Mr. Tsongas or another top finisher -- all the way to the nomination or whether it will only amplify the drumbeat for someone new.

Despite assertions by Democratic National Committee Chairman Ronald H. Brown that one of the current candidates will be the nominee, rank-and-file Democrats here seem dissatisfied with the field.

After taking a good look at the contenders, who have invested more time in New Hampshire than they will in any other state, almost half the Democratic voters -- 44 percent -- said they wished someone else would run, according to a Gallup Poll for CNN and USA Today conducted over the weekend.

Almost one-fourth of likely Democratic primary voters -- 24 percent -- are seriously considering a write-in vote, up 5 percent in less than a week, according to the poll completed Sunday evening.

On the Republican side, only the president's opponents are saying he could lose today, but even his own advisers are uncertain how much the anti-Bush protest vote will reduce his margin of victory.

In an effort to energize Bush supporters, first lady Barbara Bush returned for a final visit just one day after she and the president concluded an extensive weekend tour of the state.

But the real political action was on the airwaves -- dispelling, perhaps for good, the myth that person-to-person campaigning is the key to winning in this lightly populated state.

All five Democratic presidential candidates rearranged their schedules so they could be interviewed live on the evening newscast of tiny WMUR television in Manchester, the state's only network station.

Even Mr. Bush, the only contender absent from the state yesterday, managed to find time to appear on the show via satellite from the White House.

"Don't worry about trying to send some message. Let's put the person in that has the proven leadership worldwide and can move this country forward. That is my pitch," Mr. Bush said.

For much of the President's Day holiday, Mr. Bush campaigned long distance, bestowing phone interviews on a variety of New Hampshire radio stations during morning drive time.

What the candidates couldn't do in news show appearances, they attempted to accomplish in a last-second blizzard of commercials.

Patrick J. Buchanan, who has grown from a one-state candidate to a potential national threat, continued his negative ad barrage.

One Buchanan television ad featured the bitter testimonial of a Nashua, N.H., man rejecting Mr. Bush's claim that he understands the suffering of hard-pressed New England residents.

"By going to J. C. Penney's and buying socks? That makes you know that I'm suffering?" asks the Buchanan voter, referring to the president's visit in December to a Frederick, Md., shopping mall.

While Mr. Buchanan's campaign is likely to go forward regardless of the outcome, the Democratic primary could literally mean life or death for one or more candidacies.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, trying to salvage his campaign after widely publicized questions about marital infidelity and his Vietnam-era draft status, was running ads asking New Hampshire to "take another look."

In a clear attempt to discount a Tsongas victory, he suggested that the former Massachusetts senator was little more than a regional candidate, since his hometown is barely 10 miles from the New Hampshire line.

That brought a sharp rejoinder from Mr. Tsongas, who said he's ready for the next stage of the campaign in Maryland and Colorado, which hold primaries March 3.

"I am a regional candidate -- north, south, east and west," he told cheering supporters in Portsmouth, N.H.

Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, locked in a struggle for survival with Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, took on his Corn Belt neighbor in a closing attack ad. It termed Mr. Harkin an "old-style Democrat" waging an "old-style negative campaign."

Mr. Harkin, insisting he would surprise the experts, broadcast an unusual TV ad that featured an endorsement in sign language from his brother, Frank, who is deaf.

Even former California Gov. Edmund G. "Jerry" Brown Jr., who entered the campaign with an anti-politics blast at 30-second TV spots, was airing 30-second commercials at the end. Last in the polls, Mr. Brown told reporters that he had no intention of quitting and added that "to expect everything to be resolved by New Hampshire is silly."

Meanwhile, TV ads were also boosting the write-in campaigns of New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, who never campaigned here in person, and consumer activist Ralph Nader, who has been holding rallies in the state for weeks.

Cuomo write-in organizers, who have received assistance from the governor's political allies in New York, are hoping he'll get at least 15 percent of the vote today. Mr. Cuomo has refused to zTC discourage a write-in effort, which itself is part of the political tradition here.

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