For N.H. activists, a focus on winning

Likely voters weigh the candidates, turn to McCain, Bradley

October 04, 1999|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MILFORD, N.H. -- "I was originally for Forbes," says Steven Desmarais, who owns a construction company in nearby Amherst. "I really like what he has to say. But he's not electable."

So Desmarais has moved from publisher Steve Forbes to Gov. George W. Bush of Texas as his likely choice in the Republican primary Feb. 1.

"I want the Republicans to win, and that requires a candidate who can win," he says.

But Robert Rowe, a retired lawyer and a state legislator, has a different view of Bush and has signed on to help Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

"When McCain comes into a room, you know he's a leader," he says. "Bush dances in like a cheerleader."

These conflicting views by two members of the Milford Rotary Club seem to define the Republican campaign with four months to go. The contest is seen increasingly as one in which Bush's position is so dominant that only McCain has a chance to challenge him. And if that challenge materializes, it will happen only because Bush fails to appear serious enough to be president.

Desmarais and Rowe were among a handful of Rotarians who formed a de facto focus group for a visiting reporter the other day after a club luncheon at the Community Center. And what was most striking was how advanced the debate had become with this group of community activists.

Three months ago, no one except a few political junkies would admit paying any attention to the campaign. Now, some of these Rotarians have weighed, tentatively accepted and turned away from one candidate to another.

Joanne Laychak, a real estate broker, says she, too, originally was interested in Forbes before she began to focus on who could win.

"He's a good family man, and I liked what he said," she says. She also was intrigued by Elizabeth Hanford Dole as the first "serious" female candidate for president. But she, along with several of her fellow Rotarians, has seen Dole in person, only to come away less impressed.

"I don't think she can do it," says Laychak, adding hopefully, "maybe for vice president."

"I thought she was better as a figure on television than when I saw her in person," Desmarais says. "I don't think she's electable."

Rowe, a McCain supporter, says, "She's an executive but not a leader."

What they're made of

Richard D'Amato, a retired bank president, hasn't decided whom he'll support. But he says he is following the campaign with interest, and he defends the length of the process that has been under way here for nearly a year.

"It goes on for a long time, but that's how we find out what they're made of," D'Amato says. "You really learn something about them."

Desmarais is a defender of the New Hampshire tradition of holding the first presidential primary, and, as a result, receiving so much personal attention from the candidates.

"It's very enjoyable if you pay attention to it," he says. "Some people get irritated, but I think it's quite an honor, and everybody's got a picture [with a candidate] in the living room."

Limited interest

However, it would be a mistake to assume that most of the 200,000 New Hampshire voters likely to cast ballots in the Republican primary are paying much attention. On the contrary, if you survey a dozen folks coming out of a doughnut shop, the first eight say they have been paying little or no attention, two confess to following the campaign a little and only two profess to be interested and to have made a choice.

William Ferguson III, who retired from his insurance business and now writes a weekly column for the Milford Cabinet, says the limited interest is reflected in the few letters the newspaper receives about the presidential candidates.

"I'm sitting back and watching," he says, "but it's too soon to decide."

Several of the Republicans did march in the Labor Day parade, though, and Bush had his hair trimmed at Joe's barbershop on the Oval, an obligatory stop on the town square for GOP candidates.

"That's when interest began to pick up, after the parade," says Laychak.

If there has been a change in the temper of the electorate here over the summer, that change has two elements. The first, reflected by these Rotarians, is the emergence of a picture of the Republican competition as essentially limited to Bush vs. McCain. Steve Duprey, the Republican state chairman, says McCain has caused "a spark of enthusiasm."

The critical question is whether McCain can make himself a more serious player here in light of his decision to bypass the Iowa caucuses because he expects a backlash against his opposition to federal subsidies for ethanol, a synthetic alcohol made from corn. In the 28 years in which the Iowa and New Hampshire events have been juxtaposed, no one has won here and gone on to be nominated without "doing well" in Iowa -- not necessarily winning but at least meeting expectations for his performance.

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