McCain momentum in N.H. has Bush bolting from Iowa

Governor sweeps into Granite State with hopes of halting rival

January 19, 2000|By Jonathan Weisman | Jonathan Weisman,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PITTSFIELD, N.H. -- Troubled by polls placing him behind Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire, Texas Gov. George W. Bush bolted from Iowa just six days before the caucuses and swept into this state yesterday, hoping to knock his surging Republican rival from the presidential race before it really begins.

But instead of swaggering in to deal a knockout blow, Bush seemed tentative and defensive. And the very sight of him campaigning half a nation away from Iowa, less than a week before the first votes of the presidential campaign are to be cast there, was testament to how much of a battleground the Granite State has become.

If Bush can defeat McCain in the state where the Arizona senator has poured nearly all his resources, Bush advisers ventured, the nomination would be virtually sewn up for the Texas governor.

"It would be great if we could finish in New Hampshire," Rep. Rob Portman of Ohio, who is traveling with the Bush campaign, said wistfully at Merrimack High School yesterday. "It would save a lot of time and money."

Yet the Bush campaign's aura of invincibility has diminished considerably. Though he remains the prohibitive favorite for the Republican nomination, Bush's shaky position in New Hampshire has allowed McCain to launch a new fund-raising drive this week to try to propel his insurgent campaign beyond his beachhead here.

"I feel like I've got a pretty good chance here," Bush told reporters, displaying a hint of concern. "I've got a lot of work to do."

McCain, with a sly titter, said Monday night: "We really did interfere with the coronation, didn't we?"

McCain holds a narrow lead in the polls here. An ABC News-Washington Post poll released yesterday found that McCain had the support of 40 percent of New Hampshire Republicans who say they are likely to vote in the Feb. 1 primary, with Bush pulling 36 percent, on the edge of the poll's margin of error of 4 percentage points. A University of Massachusetts poll released yesterday put McCain at 37 percent and Bush at 29 percent.

More important, McCain's messages of political reform and fiscal restraint appear to have captured the imagination of New Hampshire voters.

Both men are stumping before warm crowds. Bush preaches the merits of sweeping tax cuts, reigning in civil lawsuits, free trade and local control of education to polite audiences. But it is his aw-shucks demeanor, not his platform, that appears to attract his supporters.

"I like the way he looks," confided Marjorie Feeny, a Pittsfield Avon saleswoman. "He always seems like he knows something funny but doesn't want to tell us."

Bush's wild card

Bush is increasingly playing a wild card -- a family name that elicits some measure of remorse among Republicans and independents who voted against President George Bush's re-election in 1992 and helped secure Bill Clinton's victory.

"I didn't vote for his father in '92," said Pat Arsenault, a Globe seamstress and committed Bush supporter. "I unfortunately voted for Clinton, and I regret it."

But at McCain town meetings, where the Vietnam War hero joshes with the audience, rails against the Washington political system and asserts that most of the federal budget surplus should go to pay down the debt -- not for tax cuts -- there is a passion that is lacking in Bush supporters. The ABC News-Washington Post poll found that nearly three-quarters of Republicans believe McCain is "an inspiring candidate." Barely half said that of Bush.

"You're 10 times the man George W. is," Patrick Carkin, a Democrat, said Monday night after he jousted with McCain over Carkin's call to end the United Nations sanctions against Iraq. McCain has played the equal-opportunity gadfly, railing against Clinton for depleting the military of needed resources but attacking the Republican-led Congress for siphoning billions of dollars for wasteful pet projects.

McCain's favorite examples of military pork are a helicopter carrier, funded at the request of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, that the Navy never requested and a fleet of C-130 transport planes, courtesy of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, that the Air Force does not want.

Mantle of reform

For independent-minded New Hampshire voters, the tactic appears to be working. By challenging the leaders of his own party, McCain has given legitimacy to his claim to the mantle of reform. It is a mantle that many New Hampshire voters appear attracted to.

"I like that he wants to eliminate the special interests. George Bush does not," said Diane Nickerson, who braved frigid weather to attend a McCain town meeting early Monday at the Gilford fire station in central New Hampshire.

"George Bush just doesn't instill the confidence in me that McCain does. He's just telling us what we want to hear."

Striking back

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