IN A MISSION somewhat akin to selling snowballs to Eskimos, Republican presidential challenger Patrick Buchanan came to the Thompson/Center Arms factory here the other day touting ** his opposition to stricter gun control laws.
He spent most of an hour hefting expensive hunting and target-shooting rifles and smaller guns, looking down their sights as cameras rolled, and watching workers make and assemble vari ous gun parts. He seemed quite at home, although he asked questions in the manner of a novice.
At the outset of the tour, though, he got what he had come for. A factory executive asked him where he stood on gun control, and he was ready with the "right" answer.
Without hesitation, Buchanan said he supported "100 percent" New Hampshire's opposition, with the exception, he added with a grin, of weapons that were "self-propelled" or needed "a trailer hitch" to tow them. The line got a good laugh from the plant managers.
In one sense, Buchanan's tour of the gun factory was the ideal media event, giving him a most graphic opportunity to highlight his position against gun control in a state that has a good share of hunting enthusiasts.
But it focused on an issue on which the man he is challenging here, President Bush, is also "right" with gun owners. Furthermore, the company visited, its managers acknowledged, has escaped the effects of the recession that has hit the state so hard and is a centerpiece of Buchanan's case against Bush.
According to Dave Haskell, director of human resources for Thompson/Center Arms, the plant has more than 450 employees and has generally maintained that level throughout the recession by makinga "good quality product" that people want to buy -- at as much as $300 a gun, or more.
So what was the object of this visit other than to give Buchanan a chance to pose with some rifles? An aide said it was scheduled to enable the candidate to learn how a company had "survived in this economic climate." Buchanan, however, limited himself to introducing himself to workers, shaking their hands and making small talk about what they were doing. Asked why he was at this thriving factory, he replied: "I'll have to ask my staff."
The former television commentator and fledgling candidate needed no staff help, however, in capitalizing on the visual props available. At one point he picked up a box in which the finished rifle was packed and held it up for the cameras, pointing to the printed words: "American Made Quality Firearm."
His campaign theme of "America First" has been handed another prop in President Bush's trip to Asia, which Buchanan repeatedly contrasts with his own retail campaigning in New Hampshire. He says he has thrown Bush on the defensive and was responsible for Bush re-casting his trip as a mission to create more jobs at home by demanding fairer Asian trade policies.
As a result of his own campaigning here, Buchanan boasted to the factory executives, "I think he'll put a Denver Boot on Air Force One pretty soon, and we'll get him up here in New Hampshire."
Although it has already been announced that the president will be coming into the state next week, Buchanan is making the most of his absence now. And supporters were busy making placards reading "Where is George?" for display at appearances by Vice President Dan Quayle in New Hampshire this week.
Also, the Buchanan campaign has rigged up a large spotlight outside the old Pandora Mills in Manchester, where sweaters were made until foreign competition forced its closure. The spotlight has been dubbed "the Bush Beacon," to be turned skyward at night, says Chris Tremblay, a Buchanan strategist, to show the president the way to New Hampshire.
Meanwhile, the Buchanan campaign is expanding rapidly, now occupying offices on three floors of a downtown Manchester building. Scott Mackenzie, the campaign treasurer, reported last weekend the campaign had already raised more than $500,000 in direct-mail contributions, another $150,000 in "high dollar fund-raising" and had already filed for federal matching funds.
Former Republican Gov. Hugh Gregg, a Bush campaign leader here, says Buchanan's activity has nothing to do with the president's scheduled trip here. But Gregg acknowledges it certainly has caught his attention.