Negative tone leaves N.H. voters dismayed 'These guys are a total turn-off'

Campaign 1996

February 17, 1996|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

LACONIA, N.H. -- Tom Herlihy likes to go ice fishing on Lake Winnipesaukee and he takes along, as he puts it, "a good friend and something to keep us warm." But he has decided none of the eight candidates for the Republican presidential nomination would be good company sharing a drink on the ice.

"They're all just calling each other names," he says. "I'm a good Republican, most years anyways, but these guys are a total turnoff."

There is a lot of that talk going around here in Belknap County, a lake region that has been heavily targeted by all the major candidates in anticipation of Tuesday's New Hampshire primary.

With only three days left, the voters here, like those in Iowa a week ago, are dismayed or disgusted by the negative tone of the campaign.

"I can't tell you the apathy I see out there today," says Bob Gilbert, the county chairman here for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. "They want these people to stop bashing and talk about the issues."

Theresa Agnello, a part-time teacher and waitress, agrees. "I try to tell my kids that this is important, picking a president of the United States," she says, "but they see all those ads and they say, 'Oh, Mom, they're just smearing the other guy.' "

Randy Erickson, a truck driver, blames the problem on the press. "If you people held their feet to the fire a little better," he tells a visiting reporter, "they wouldn't be able to get away with lying about each other all the time. The way it is, all they need is the price of a little minute of time on television and they can say anything they want."

The pervasiveness of this complaint can be politically significant if it translates to many voters simply sitting out the primary. That was what happened in Iowa, where only 96,000 Republicans took part in the caucuses when some 135,000 had been expected.

Some strategists believe a small turnout on Tuesday might help Mr. Dole because he has an organizational advantage in the state. Here in Laconia, a community of about 18,000 people, Mr. Gilbert has organized 65 energetic volunteers -- "I call them my 'worker bees,' he says -- who will be mobilized Tuesday to turn out the vote.

But there also is some indication a small turnout might help commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, whose supporters seem more ardent. Will Clements, for example, says he will "get my vote down for Pat even if there's 12 feet of snow." These are the voters, says Mr. Gilbert, "who have the fire in their belly."

There also has been some evidence that Lamar Alexander has begun to gain ground since he finished a respectable third in Iowa. "Lamar's showing in Iowa just flipped the switch," says Mark Thurston, a marina operator and Belknap County commissioner serving as Mr. Alexander's chairman here.

The Alexander campaign had scheduled a meeting for the former Tennessee governor at the Margate resort last Tuesday, the day after the caucuses, and were delighted when 250 people showed up, 100 more than they had planned to see.

Even Mr. Gilbert, the former sheriff and federal marshal serving as the Dole chairman, has been impressed by what he sees as signs of movement since Mr. Alexander lifted himself out of the pack of also-rans in Iowa. "In my gut," he says, "I got a feeling Alexander is moving up."

If there is any such movement for Mr. Alexander, it grows in large measure from the perception that he has been less negative in his campaigning than either Mr. Dole or Steve Forbes, the wealthy magazine publisher who finished a weak fourth in Iowa.

Mr. Forbes is now running determinedly positive television commercials after admitting he had made a mistake relying so heavily on the negative in Iowa. But if voters here are typical, it may be too late for Mr. Forbes to be taken seriously again.

"I was sort of interested in Steve Forbes," says Andrew Haynes, an auditor who lives near Franklin, "but I guess everybody's decided the flat tax is a wild idea and I sort of agree with that."

Mr. Alexander may be getting some benefit from the extensive early and personal effort he made in the state, including the walk from Concord to Portsmouth he is scheduled to complete just before the voting. "People know him a little," says Wesley J. Colby, another Belknap commissioner supporting Mr. Alexander. "He's reaping the crop he sowed by walking the state."

Ironically, the widespread reaction against the tone of the campaign seems to have provided the candidates with some measure of insulation against new charges. Many supporters of Mr. Buchanan see the controversy over Larry Pratt, a campaign co-chairman accused of having links to a white supremacist organization, as just another example of dirty politics.

"All that tells me," says Wayne Greenlee, a motorcycle mechanic, "is that old Patrick must be getting close to the top so they got to cut him down to their size."

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