MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Only the icy bite of the storm that has blanketed this region with snow rivals the chill that hangs in the air when the subject of Washington comes up here.
Ask voters about the budget impasse that has resulted in the partial shutdown of the federal government and they respond with a bone-cold stare and a collective "harrumph."
"Ridiculous," many snap. "Absolutely unacceptable." "Bunch of babies."
Most of the several dozen New Hampshire voters interviewed this week said they had not been directly affected by the stalemate that has furloughed 280,000 federal workers and put the paychecks of many more in question.
Some in this heavily Republican state, the site of the nation's first presidential primary, said they thought the shutdown proved that government could be significantly trimmed back without any serious damage to the country.
Still, most said the stalled negotiations -- with many government workers and government services in limbo appeared to be political posturing rather than an earnest attempt by the Republicans in Congress and the Clinton administration to balance the budget.
And whom do they blame?
The Republicans. President Clinton. Everyone. No one.
"Everyone is equally at fault," insists Priscilla Fridlund, a Republican saleswoman who lives in Hanover. "It just reinforces my belief that government is corrupt and self-serving."
Ms. Fridlund says she doesn't think Mr. Clinton is willing to compromise or negotiate, and she questions the president's honesty in the deliberations. But she is disappointed in the Republicans as well.
"It looks pretty tawdry," she says. "I thought the Republicans were above such machinations."
Most Republicans interviewed said they viewed Mr. Clinton's defiance as an attempt to obstruct efforts to reach a balanced budget in seven years. Democrats, in turn, said they believed the Republican-led Congress was trying to bully the president into accepting its agenda by holding the government hostage.
Many blame GOP
But, mirroring national polls that have showed Mr. Clinton winning the public relations war, a surprising number of Republicans and independents in this conservative state seem willing to stick the GOP Congress with most of the blame.
At campaign events all over the state yesterday, Texas senator and Republican presidential candidate Phil Gramm was peppered with questions about the impasse. Even supporters here groused about the Republicans' handling of the issue, and the growing perception that they are unwilling to compromise.
"You guys better start doing a better job of explaining to the public what this is all about," said one businessman downing a bowl of chowder with Mr. Gramm at a Portsmouth sandwich shop.
In another part of town, Leo Lirette, a law enforcement officer in Manchester, said he was so outraged by the Republicans' "tantrum" that he might vote Democratic for the first time this year.
"Most people -- Republicans like me -- don't like the Dole-Gingrich ticket," says Officer Lirette.
Most of Officer Lirette's ire seemed directed at House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who, in representing the sentiments of the resolute Republican House freshmen, has opposed efforts to reopen the government unless the larger balanced budget issue is resolved.
"He's like a spoiled child," says the officer of Mr. Gingrich.
Officer Lirette may have been precisely the kind of voter Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole had in mind when he broke with Mr. Gingrich on Tuesday and backed a temporary spending bill -- dismissed by the House yesterday -- that would have reopened the closed portions of government while the budget talks continued.
Kristin Herrick, an independent voter, said she was so resentful of the gridlock that "there are people running for president who I won't vote for because of this."
When pressed, Ms. Herrick, who owns a landscaping business, says the impasse has lowered her opinion of Mr. Dole.
'It's all of them'
"But it's all of them -- the Senate, the House, the president," she adds. "You know it's going to cost us money. It's unacceptable."
Equally outraged, but at a different target, is Dave St. Pierre, a Manchester salesman.
He is cheering on the Republicans, especially the House freshmen who have said they will not support any measure to return workers to the job unless there is a budget deal. "It's about time someone takes a stand and does what the voters tell them to do," he says.
Mr. St. Pierre believes Mr. Clinton is trying to con the nation by saying he opposes the GOP cuts in Medicare and Medicaid, one of the chief sticking points in the budget negotiations.
"It's getting to be common knowledge that these are not cuts. They're reduced rates of spending," he says. "Guys like Rush Limbaugh are making sure more and more people know that. This makes the president look like an idiot. This is deceit."
Although they are in the vast minority, a handful of voters here say they see the gridlock as a positive and necessary exercise. "These are really tough issues," says John Kitchen, a Gilford attorney and independent voter. "It's good they're talking. If it means things are not running fully, that's OK."
Mr. Kitchen says he would like to see the government scaled back and the budget balanced, but he doesn't want a lot of beneficial government programs to be discarded in the process. "I've got elderly parents and kids down to the age of 5, so I'm thinking about it from all the angles," he says. "But I'm fundamentally optimistic it will all work out."
Few in this town share his view. More typical is the sentiment of Tony Billesimo, a carpenter and painter who sees the standoff in Washington as politics at its worst.
"Maybe they'll get it right next year," he lamented for a split second. "Oh, it is next year."