Independent N.H. tilting toward McCain

On eve of first primary, a GOP-leaning town eyes an apparent 2-man race

January 31, 2000|By Jack W. Germond | Jack W. Germond,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

MILFORD, N.H. -- They had a traffic jam Saturday around the Milford Oval that would have done credit to a much larger community. Vice President Al Gore had stopped in at the Riverhouse Cafe and attracted a clutch of voters as well as the usual gaggle of reporters and photographers.

Mary Centers, wearing a button supporting Republican Arizona Sen. John McCain for president, was one of those waiting. "I'm an independent and I'm probably going to vote for McCain, but I didn't want to miss a chance to see a vice president."

Then, gesturing to a television crew filming from the gazebo in the ovoid town square, she added: "It's pretty exciting, right here in Milford."

There's a lot of that sentiment going around here in the final days before tomorrow's New Hampshire primary. Potential voters who had been ignoring the primary campaign for months have suddenly become engaged.

Two hours after Gore's motorcade moved on, Republican front-runner George W. Bush arrived in town for a rally that featured the country music of the Bellamy Brothers and attracted more than 2,000 -- the fire chief turned away about 300 others -- to a sports and fitness center.

Six weeks ago it was hard to find anyone outside a handful of activists following the campaign. But today everyone has an opinion, and almost everyone supports a candidate.

"This town is very political," said Margaret Swiezynski, the Bush co-chairwoman here.

Some of the town's Republicans have supported one candidate after another.

"I was with that John Kasich, first thing," said Pat Riley, who drives a tractor-trailer. "Then I thought about Dan Quayle for a while before I decided on Lamar Alexander. I finally got around to taking a look at McCain, and I'm glad he's there."

The rising level of interest is reflected in the pages of the Cabinet, Milford's weekly newspaper. The campaign that was rarely mentioned last summer and fall now is the subject of several articles and letters to the editor, as well as a signed editorial in which managing editor Michael Cleveland endorsed McCain and Gore.

Street talk about the campaign in this southern New Hampshire town seems to reflect the opinion polls. Gore is favored over former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley among Democrats, while Bush and McCain are seen as locked in a tight contest that is the focus of most of the attention in this Republican-leaning community.

There are exceptions, of course. One activist Republican, Loreen Daniels, was undecided 48 hours before the primary. She has narrowed her choices to millionaire publisher Steve Forbes and former conservative commentator Alan L. Keyes of Maryland. The two leading GOP candidates, she said, "are a little too pro-establishment for me. We need new blood that is not so Washington-oriented."

The signs of the two-man race were abundant, however. Swiezynski was delighted by the turnout at the Bush rally, and her campaign co-chairman, Shawn Sweeney, called it "pretty good evidence we're in a strong position."

The crowd cheered boisterously for former GOP candidate Elizabeth Hanford Dole and for Bush's brothers and sisters. And they gave a prolonged ovation to his father and mother that illustrated how much of an asset the former president can be.

But there was one puzzling aspect of the event. After Barbara and then George Bush said a sentence or two about their son, the Texas governor thanked the crowd for coming and ended the rally without making even his usual stump speech.

"A lot of people were really disappointed," Swiezynski said later. "He should have spoken a little."

Bush's prime asset here, as elsewhere, is the support he enjoys from the party leadership. He has been traveling with U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg, the state's most powerful Republican, and adding other endorsements almost at will.

He even won the backing of John H. Sununu, the acerbic former New Hampshire governor, whom Bush, acting at his father's behest, fired as White House chief of staff.

"The Sununu thing is important," said Clara Monier, a longtime Republican activist from nearby Bedford. "It shows how the whole thing is coming together."

Bush's quick exit from his rally was made all the more striking by the contrast with the reputation McCain has made by showing up for more than 110 town meetings and answering everyone's questions until the audience is worn out.

One of his local campaign leaders, retired attorney Robert Rowe of Amherst, said McCain's support is so intense that he is likely to win the primary even if he is a long-shot to capture the nomination.

"Most of the people voting for him here know he's unlikely to win the nomination, but they still like him," Rowe said.

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