Staying alive or staying ahead, hopefuls work New Hampshire

Snow doesn't slow down the surviving candidates in the race for president

January 26, 2000|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The seven surviving presidential candidates converged yesterday on New Hampshire for debates tonight that will give them their last chance to make an impression on the Republicans and Democrats who will vote in the state's primaries next Tuesday.

Seeking to either exploit or atone for their performances in the Iowa precinct caucuses, several of the candidates kept to frantic campaign schedules despite a snowstorm that closed schools and airports and snarled traffic.

Meanwhile, strategists in both parties tried to assess the effects of the Iowa results on the campaign here.

Among Republicans, there were two questions: Would the Iowa winner, Gov. George W. Bush of Texas, be able to gain some momentum from that success to overcome the lead held here by Sen. John McCain of Arizona? And could Steve Forbes use his strong second-place showing in Iowa to become a serious factor after months as a distant also-ran in New Hampshire?

For the Democrats, the question was whether Vice President Al Gore's nearly 2-to-1 triumph in Iowa would give him added momentum over Bill Bradley here.

The polling figures in New Hampshire were contradictory. The latest numbers from the American Research Group showed Gore leading Bradley, 49 percent to 36 percent. But another survey, conducted by the University of New Hampshire, showed the Democratic contest within the statistical margin of error. Both polls were taken before the Iowa results were known.

Advisers to Bradley both in Iowa and here suggested that his campaign would be more aggressive in confronting Gore on what they consider the vice president's distortions of Bradley's record.

"We learned a lesson in Iowa that we can't let them go unanswered," said Mo Elleithee, a spokesman for Bradley's New Hampshire operation.

But the early Bradley response was small-caliber political fire -- a television commercial in which Niki Tsongas, the widow of Paul Tsongas, laments the distortions of Bradley's record, without identifying Gore as the culprit.

The Tsongas name is still fondly known here from his service as a senator from Massachusetts and from his winning campaign in the 1992 Democratic primary here. But it is far from clear that many recall the attacks on Tsongas that wrecked his campaign later that year or that they will perceive a parallel with Bradley's situation.

Meanwhile, Gore celebrated what President Clinton called "a terrific victory" in Iowa and a growing consensus that Bradley needs an impressive breakthrough in the final days to reclaim the leads in New Hampshire he held last year.

Dick Bennett, the poll-taker who runs ARG, said Bradley had had a clear opportunity last fall at a time when Democrats were angry at Gore "because he was running a losing campaign and he was tied to Clinton." But since then, Bradley has not given primary voters here good reasons to choose him over the vice president.

Republicans supporting both Bush and McCain tended to discount Forbes' strong showing in Iowa as a product of the large population of religious fundamentalists among Republicans there. To become a serious player in New Hampshire, said Steve Duprey, the Republican state chairman, the multimillionaire publisher must "find some way to convince those supporting [Alan] Keyes and [Gary] Bauer to come over to him."

Pat Griffin, a Manchester consultant to the Bush campaign, reflected the view of many unaligned Republicans when he questioned whether the Forbes phenomenon "would translate into a bump here."

Duprey raised the possibility that Forbes might direct his fire at Bush and draw some primary voters away from the Texas governor. If that happened, Duprey said, it could create "an unintended beneficiary" in McCain.

Some political professionals also suggested that the relatively poor performance by Bradley in Iowa might mean that more of the 85,000 or more independents expected to vote here Tuesday will break more heavily toward McCain. But veterans of New Hampshire politics contend that most of the so-called undeclared voters have a clear preference.

The debates will be televised here by WMUR, the dominant broadcast outlet in the state, and CNN. There will be five Republicans taking part in a 90-minute confrontation after the expected withdrawal from the race today of Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah, who could never lift his candidacy above the 1 percent level.

Then, after a 30-minute pause, Gore and Bradley will debate for an hour. If the challenger has something up his sleeve for the final days of this campaign, this will be his best chance to show his cards.

As Pat Griffin put it, "Everybody will be watching, and a lot of people will be tuning in for the first time."

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