Disdain common in N.H. for presidential hopefuls

`Not ready to pay attention,' voters say, as candidates gather

June 21, 1999|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MILFORD, N.H. -- Burt is bursting with a joke he wants to share. He brandishes a copy of the Milford Cabinet with an article about the 14th annual High Hopes Hot Air Balloon Festival here this weekend.

"You see that," he says, digging a visitor in the ribs. "A hot air balloon festival. That's where you'll find all those politicians running for president, providing the hot air. I'll worry about them next year if I ever do."

Burt, who doesn't want his last name used because he fears offending his Republican friends, is probably not a typical New Hampshire voter, if there is such a thing. He is both more affluent and, at 76, older than most. But the attitude of good-humored disdain he displays toward the presidential candidates is common.

Even after a week in which Gov. George W. Bush of Texas and Vice President Al Gore officially kicked off their campaigns in the state, a lot of that feeling is around. Even the media riot that Bush occasioned didn't impress some voters.

Andrea Restelli, a young mother and graduate student, puts it this way: "I saw all that stuff about Bush in the the [Manchester] Union Leader, and it was all over the TV, but I'm not ready to pay attention."

And Tom Ridley, a computer programmer who works in Nashua, adds: "The election is more than a year away, and it just doesn't make sense to start trying to figure out now who to support then. By the time we get to the primaries [in February], half of these candidates will have quit anyway."

However, one change has occurred in the past six weeks: The political activists have begun to choose sides.

Six weeks ago, Margaret Swiezynski -- who answers to "Mrs. Republican" -- was undecided. She would need to know a great deal more, she said then, before making a commitment. "It's just too early," she said.

But when Bush appeared at the Republican women's Lilac Luncheon in Manchester recently, Sen. Judd Gregg introduced Swiezynski to the Texas governor as his presidential campaign's Milford co-chairwoman.

"It was a surprise to me," she said, "but he knew I'd do it. I like the things [Bush] said at the luncheon. I'm glad he's going to increase the military. I think it's down to nothing. And he and his wife are morally steadfast and good, and that's important. I like the fact he wants to cut taxes."

She's a little concerned about where he stands on gun control but figures that since he's from Texas, he's probably all right on the issue.

Swiezynski's co-chairman also was freshly recruited by the Gregg organization. He is Bob Philbrick, a retired businessman who was a Democrat a generation ago and was chairman of the 1976 presidential primary campaign of Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana.

"I just signed on [with Bush] the other day," Philbrick said. "He seems to have a lot of forthrightness and energy."

Not all the activists here in the Souhegan Valley have been bowled over by the Bush steamroller. "I just don't know who he is," said Jack Spanos, the town Republican chairman.

Six weeks ago, Spanos also was neutral. But he listened to Sen. John McCain of Arizona at a meeting in a town nearby and came away impressed with what he had to say, particularly on foreign policy. "I just like the cut of the man," he said. "He's paid his dues."

So Spanos has signed on as co-chairman of the McCain campaign, though he recognizes it might be uphill for the outspoken and determinedly independent Arizonan. "He may not be the most polished candidate," Spanos said. "But he knows who he is. He knows what he thinks."

At this point, McCain is what Spanos calls "a stealth candidate" -- meaning one not showing up prominently on the radar of public opinion polls. But veterans of the political wars in New Hampshire, while conceding that Bush dominates the Republican universe here, frequently mention McCain as someone making a few waves.

"He's been doing well," said Steve Duprey, the Republican state chairman. "He's moving around."

McCain made an impression on some voters by his willingness to speak out quickly and strongly on the situation in Kosovo while other Republican candidates hemmed and hawed. The question is what issues, if any, he can find that might juxtapose him alongside the front-running Bush as his leading challenger. That is necessarily the goal for 10 of the Republicans who are running far behind.

The one thing that is clear, at least in this town of 13,000, is that none of the retread candidates from past primary campaigns is causing much excitement. Interviews with 23 voters chosen at random and conducted over parts of three days found only one who mentioned Patrick J. Buchanan, who won the 1996 primary, and one who mentioned former Vice President Dan Quayle.

Steve Forbes and Lamar Alexander, who pulled respectable tallies four years ago, have created committees with 200 or 300 or more supporters. And Forbes has been running television and radio advertising. But neither has shown noticeable movement in the polls.

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