GOP beauty contest in N.H. no predictor of party nominee

May 05, 1999|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The Republicans held a dinner here the other night that was billed as the starting point of the campaign that will culminate in the New Hampshire primary in February.

The myth is that these events allow the party's presidential candidates to display their candidacies to help rank-and-file regulars make up their minds about whom they will support. The press goes along with the gag. Some 50 reporters and several television crews showed up.

In fact, nothing much happened. Eight candidates were given seven minutes each to address more than 1,100 so-called activists. In this case, that meant the various campaigns paying for supporters to attend the $150-a-plate function.

Some candidates were received with more warmth than others. Sen. Bob Smith, the local boy trying to make good, was given a rousing reception by his fellow Republicans, although the polls show that almost none of them supports his run. Elizabeth Dole was received with little enthusiasm after a disjointed speech delivered from the floor rather than the podium in what has now become her shtick.

The only real winner was the state party, which netted more than $100,000 for its own operations. That is something both parties do with consummate skill in New Hampshire: squeeze the presidential campaigns for money to use in their state elections.

Front-runner absent

This event was made even more meaningless than usual, however, by the absence of Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, the runaway leader for the nomination in all the opinion polls. A survey of New Hampshire Republicans released last week showed Mr. Bush with 54 percent and Mrs. Dole a distant second with 15 percent. Some 18 percent of respondents were undecided.

Mr. Bush seems to be getting all the best of it these days. He remains in Austin, Texas, keeping his promise not to campaign until his legislature has finished its business on May 31. Meanwhile, party leaders call on him to declare their support. One of them is Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the most popular Republican officeholder here at the moment.

Kennedy vs. Carter

The conventional wisdom is that Mr. Bush's support is at a level that he cannot possibly maintain once he mounts an active campaign, spelling out his positions on more issues.

That is a pattern that is not uncommon. In 1979, for example, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was far ahead of President Jimmy Carter in polls of Democrats. But once he became an active candidate, his ratings dropped and Mr. Carter defeated him in the primaries. The Kennedy name and legend was not enough to sustain him.

There are some Republicans who suspect this may be happening already to Mrs. Dole. Because of her high level of support among women voters, Mrs. Dole was running a relatively close second to Mr. Bush when she first went public with her plans to run. But her performance as a candidate has been uneven enough so that her poll numbers have dropped sharply.

No forward motion

Most of the candidates are running in place. That is the case with four who have run in the past -- former Vice President Dan Quayle, Lamar Alexander, Steve Forbes and Pat Buchanan. They are campaigning full-time without moving out of single digits in the polls. Mr. Alexander and Mr. Forbes have been at it almost nonstop since the 1996 campaign.

The only candidate who has shown even slight movement in the polls recently has been Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who has stepped out front as a leader in formulating policy on the war in the Balkans.

Mr. McCain skipped this event to be at home for his son's 13th birthday after being assured by his prime backer here, former Sen. Warren Rudman, that his prospects wouldn't be affected at all by whether or not he attended the dinner.

The truth is that the campaign for the presidential nominations in both parties is a topic of interest to very few Americans at this stage. Political professionals who know this state best estimate there are only 3,000 to 4,000 activists in each party who are ready to get involved in the politics of 2000 now. These are the people who were given the tickets to occupy the dinner tables here the other night.

The reality of politics today is that making a good impression at a dinner or shaking hands along Main Street is no longer relevant, even in a state like New Hampshire, where personal contact is prized. What matters is the image the candidate projects on television next February, long after this dinner has been forgotten.

Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover write from the Washington Bureau.

Pub Date: 5/05/99

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