Republicans tune up for presidential runs

Dole takes spotlight as some contenders skip events in N.H.

May 03, 1999|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Eight Republican presidential candidates converged on New Hampshire during the weekend to heap scorn on President Clinton and raise money for the state party organization.

The main event, a $150-a-plate dinner here, was advertised as the first major confrontation in the competition for the presidential primary here next February that many political professionals believe could be pivotal, perhaps even decisive.

But the cattle show lost some of its luster because it lacked some of the prime beef of the Republican field. Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the runaway leader in early opinion polls, remained in Texas to honor his pledge to eschew campaigning until June.

Patrick J. Buchanan, winner of the 1996 primary here, was kept in California by a scheduling conflict. And Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has taken the lead on the Kosovo issue, remained at home to observe his son's 13th birthday.

The absence of Bush evoked some muttering by some of his rivals. But it also sharpened the focus on Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who has been running second in the opinion polls here as well as nationally.

Dole was given only perfunctory applause, however, after a speech she delivered in what she is making her trademark style -- that is, using a hand microphone and speaking from the floor rather than a podium. In this case, she had her back to half of the 1,200 listeners and could be seen by only a minority of them.

She was cheered boisterously when she began by declaring her commitment to New Hampshire as the site for the first presidential primary every four years. "Don't mess with success, New Hampshire first by a week," she said.

The body of her speech was a list of issues large and small that she offered without devoting more than a sentence or two to any one of them. She promised to improve schools and lower taxes and to seek "tough enforceable laws" to reduce crime, a ban on so-called cop-killer bullets that pierce body armor, safety locks on guns and full funding for background checks on gun purchasers.

At one point, she seemed to be trying out a slogan when she said, then repeated: "Drugs are not cool, they kill." On foreign policy, she noted the endorsement she has been given by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the former ambassador to the United Nations, and she criticized Clinton's policies in the Balkans in general terms.

"We've got to win this war," she said, "because Milosevic is a war criminal."

Some of the candidates running back in the pack took advantage of the opening provided by Bush's absence to gain some attention from the press and from the Republicans who will vote here more than nine months from now.

Lamar Alexander, who ran third here four years ago, spent an hour Saturday with Sen. Fred Thompson, an old political ally from Tennessee, at his side passing out campaign videos in a neighborhood in nearby Bedford. Then, shortly before the dinner, Alexander trotted out the endorsement of former New Hampshire Rep. Bill Zeliff, a popular Republican who backed former Sen. Bob Dole four years ago.

Rep. John R. Kasich of Ohio went fly-fishing with Rep. John E. Sununu for the benefit of the television cameras, then attended several more coffees with small groups of New Hampshire Republicans, an activity at which he has been the acknowledged early leader.

At a pre-dinner news conference, Kasich avoided criticizing Bush for failing to appear here. But he said he thought the key to success in the primary is "the amount of time you spend here" meeting potential voters. "Intensity goes a long way," he said.

The dinner is a quadrennial event designed to force the candidates to support the state party apparatus. Each of the campaigns, including those of the absentees, bought several tables of eight at $1,200 a table. Wealthy magazine publisher Steve Forbes, who has a reputation as a free spender, bought eight tables, and Alexander seven. The others bought several each to the point that the presidential campaigns paid for almost 100 of the 150 total, according to Kenneth Egan, executive director of the state party.

The eight candidates who showed up were given seven minutes each to speak. In addition to Dole, Alexander, Forbes and Kasich, the roster included former Vice President Dan Quayle, Sen. Robert C. Smith of New Hampshire, conservative activist Gary L. Bauer and Alan L. Keyes, a radio talk-show host from Baltimore.

The dinner talks were largely distillations of the standard campaign speeches each candidate delivers on any occasion. The one common theme of the Republican rhetoric all weekend has been the assault on President Clinton's morality in office.

"He's squandered his moral authority," Alexander said. "He's hurt our party. He's hurt our country."

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