Down to the wire in New Hampshire CAMPAIGN 1996

February 19, 1996|By Jack Germond & Jules Witcover

BEDFORD, N.H. -- Three questions hold the key to tomorrow's New Hampshire primary .

Can Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole hang on to enough Republicans to achieve the 28 to 30 percent of the vote needed to succeed? Polls show him with a hard core of 20 to 22 percent of the vote among party activists but little evidence of enthusiasm among less involved Republicans. In short, he still has some persuading to do.

Second, is Patrick J. Buchanan a threat to win here or just the flavor of the week? He clearly has the most emotionally committed followers, but the efforts by his rivals to depict him as an extremist can limit his support. The key may be whether Mr. Buchanan's appeal on economic issues -- trade in particular -- is compelling enough that voters are willing to put aside concerns about his hard-line positions on social issues such as abortion.

Third, is Lamar Alexander's late run strong enough to propel him to the level of Messrs. Dole and Buchanan? Polls show his favorable ratings rising, largely at the expense of magazine publisher Steve Forbes, who has faded since finishing fourth in Iowa last week.

Although poll-takers are measuring the Republican electorate here daily, many potential voters, as was the case in Iowa, probably won't make their decisions until the very end of the campaign, which could mean an upset by Mr. Alexander.

What may be most striking about the final days of the campaign is the obvious influence of the results in Iowa, where Senator Dole won narrowly over Mr. Buchanan, and Mr. Alexander ran a respectable third.

The idea that the Senate leader is somehow entitled to the nomination because of his position in the party carried little weight in Iowa and apparently carries even less here, where his negatives are creeping up and his personal campaigning is evoking little excitement.

The Iowa result also has proved a boon to Mr. Alexander. The former Tennessee governor has gained steadily among voters xTC who now see him as a realistic alternative rather than as just another of the also-rans. Post-mortems on the debate among the eight Republicans in Manchester Thursday night generally gave Mr. Alexander the best of it, although there was nothing dramatic enough about his performance or that of any of his rivals to change the dynamics of the entire campaign.

Distaste for negative ads

New Hampshire voters also are matching those in Iowa in their expressions of distaste for the negative tone of the campaign, apparently putting much of the blame on Senator Dole, who is continuing attack commercials against Mr. Buchanan on the ''extremist'' theme. Mr. Alexander is perceived as having kept his campaign on the high road -- a perception not entirely accurate but widespread nonetheless.

The critical question is whether the voters' distaste will affect turnout dramatically -- and, if so, whom that might help or hurt.

Projections of the primary vote have ranged from 165,000 to 200,000. But in Iowa, party officials had expected 135,000 and were stunned when only 96,000 took part, a showing they traced to dissatisfaction with the whole field and the campaign itself.

A similar small turnout here might help either Senator Dole or Mr. Buchanan. Mr. Dole would benefit because he has built the most sophisticated organization to get his supporters to the polls. It also can be argued that his backers are more likely to be party activists who can be depended upon to cast their ballots.

But small turnouts sometimes help candidates with the most committed followers, and that description best fits Mr. Buchanan. He is burdened with high negatives, but if many of those who don't like him don't vote, that sentiment won't make itself felt. And it would take more than a 10-inch snowfall to deter those who are all over the state shouting, ''Go, Pat, go.''

The uncertainty is particularly tough for Senator Dole. Eight years ago he entered the final weekend with an apparent lead over Vice President Bush only to see it vanish and turn into a nine-point defeat by Tuesday. New Hampshire voters march to their own drummers.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover report from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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