MANCHESTER, N.H. -- With the New Hampshire primary less than 48 hours away, Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush have moved within striking distance of potentially decisive victories here, polls show.
Contests in both parties remained tight as the seven presidential candidates worked every snowy corner of the state yesterday, from the rocky seacoast to the timber towns of the mountainous north country.
According to the latest voter surveys, Gore has opened up about a 7 percentage-point edge over his Democratic challenger, former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley.
Bush, who campaigned alongside his popular parents yesterday for the first time, has pulled into a statistical dead heat with GOP opponent John McCain, a U.S. senator from Arizona. Bush is picking up the support of older Republicans, who had been undecided, surveys showed.
"It's very close. There's not going to be a blowout by McCain," said Dick Bennett, an independent New Hampshire pollster. "On the Democratic side, Bradley has sort of stalled out."
Gore and Bush appear to be benefiting from a nearly solid week of politicking in a state that demands personal attention from presidential candidates.
Both had spent less time here than their main rivals, Bradley and McCain, who badly need a lift coming out of New Hampshire after losing in the Iowa caucuses.
Front-loaded primary season
The concentration of primaries near the start of this year's campaign makes it unlikely that the front-runners can be stopped unless they get sidetracked here.
So many states have advanced the date of their primaries that a majority of convention delegates will be awarded by mid-March. Without a New Hampshire win, politicians believe, an underdog will have a tough time attracting enough support to prevail in what is, in effect, a national primary March 7, when California, New York, Ohio and other states, including Maryland, hold votes.
Bush and Gore's easy victories in Iowa last week suggest that relatively few voters are in an anti-establishment frame of mind.
There is little evidence of discontent in New Hampshire. A prosperous economy, fueled by a high-tech boom, has given the state more technology workers per capita than any other and left voters feeling better than they have in recent election years.
Gore has worked to capitalize on that mood. No longer distancing himself from President Clinton, he's spotlighting the administration's economic achievements and mentioning Clinton's name more often than he has in months.
"We have just begun to prosper," says Gore, who campaigned with former Treasury Secretary Robert E. Rubin, the architect of the administration's economic strategy. Gore tells voters that he is the only candidate with "the experience and the skills to keep our prosperity going."
Bradley, who lost his New Hampshire lead over Gore in the past two weeks, has stopped his slide by launching a counterattack.
Seeking women's votes
Yesterday, Bradley tried to cut into Gore's heavy support from women by challenging the vice president to explain his switch on abortion during the 1980s. Gore says he always favored abortion rights, despite having voted with anti-abortion forces many times as a House member in the 1980s.
"How can women trust somebody who doesn't tell the truth in a campaign to tell the truth as president of the United States?" Bradley asked at a campaign stop in Manchester, the state's largest city.
Bradley supporters say the former senator should have gotten tough on Gore much earlier and worried that his counter-attack had come too late.
"I think it's about time that he showed what he's made of inside," says Cindy Baer of Exeter, a retired elementary school teacher. "People were concerned that he was a little aloof. They needed to see more passion."
Bradley is preparing to go on, even if Gore takes the first primary. The Bradley campaign has more than enough money, more than $10 million, about the same amount as the vice president's.
Perhaps more important, Bradley seems newly energized, even as his political prospects are fading.
Apparently motivated by increasingly bitter personal feelings toward the vice president, the former pro basketball player is turning the once-gentlemanly Democratic contest into a grudge match.
"Quite frankly, I've had it up to here," Bradley said on CNN. "You can only take misrepresentations and misleading statements up to a certain point."
Anita Dunn, Bradley's communications director, said, "This is only the first part of the race, and the second part of the race are the March 7th and March 14th primaries."
Bradley plans to campaign this week in five target states with March primaries: Connecticut, New York, California, Maryland and Florida. He also intends to make a push in his native state of Missouri, Dunn says.
But losing badly in this Northeastern state, close to his home turf in New Jersey, would raise questions about his ability to win elsewhere.