Bush's warm message gets cool N.H. reception Voters want specifics on dealing with economy


MANCHESTER, N.H. -- If President Bush said it once, he said it a dozen times, in one form or another, as his campaign rolled through this state Wednesday: "George knows New Hampshire." All the other candidates, he said, were know-nothing Johnny-come-latelies, "crazy people running around who had never heard of New Hampshire before."

But judging from the reactions of voters, the rest of Mr. Bush's Congress-bashing message of blame and empathy only showed how out of touch he is with the state and its economic misery. The time for recrimination and finger-pointing is long past, voters say.

Popular demand now calls for remedies, the more specific the better, and just about all Mr. Bush offered in that department were vague "previews of coming attractions" promised Jan. 28 in the State of the Union address.

Not to say that Mr. Bush won't rally in time for the Feb. 18 primary, still a month away. Though the latest polls show Republican challenger Patrick J. Buchanan grabbing an embarrassing 30 percent of the vote, to 46 percent for Mr. Bush, a detailed well-presented State of the Union speech could bail out the president. But for now the prevailing judgment in New Hampshire is that he remains well behind the curve set by some of the other candidates, despite the warm reception he got from a series of cheering, hand-picked crowds.

"People are looking for really specific proposals," said Gerry Sherman, a renovation contractor from Milford. "Your average person has gone beyond the general issues of health care and economy. They want to know what is your particular health care plan, and what is your economic plan, and what are you going to do about this and about that. . . .

"In past years [from the candidates] it's been, 'Yeah, I'm concerned about that, and I'll take care of it.' Well, people aren't buying that any more."

The sudden interest in details is viewed as a matter of economic survival by people such as Mr. Sherman and his wife, Veronica. The business they run generated sales of more than $1 million in 1989, but last year sales were down to $159,000.

They used to employ a staff of eight. Now it's just the two of them. Instead of renting an office, they now run the operation out of the basement of their home.

But by still having work, the Shermans are among the lucky ones. Bankruptcy filing, for example, have gone from 608 in 1987 to 3,848 in 1991. The number of recipients of food stamps and welfare has roughly tripled over the same span.

Mr. Bush's candidacy isn't the only one suffering from a lack of proposed solutions in this bleak atmosphere. Sen. Robert Kerrey, D-Neb., has floundered in the early opinion polls, and the major complaint voiced about him is that, despite his easy charisma and attention-getting record as a Vietnam war veteran, he's short on ideas and proposals.

"We're at the point where it's, 'OK, that's great Bob, but what are you going to do?' " Mrs. Sherman said.

But the better example might be Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, who came on strong early with fiery speeches that placed blame left and right, but who has faded in popularity as voters have begun to deem his solutions too vague or uncreative.

The Shermans recalled Mr. Harkin wowing a crowd with a speech at a community picnic last August.

"Harkin was just a great speaker," Mrs. Sherman said. "It was that Democrat old-time religion kind of thing." And it was the event where Mr. Harkin tickled the crowd by pulling out a suitcase plastered over with travel stickers, in parody of the globe-trotting Mr. Bush.

But afterward, Mr. Sherman said, "Even my 14-year-old son said, 'You know, dad, he was a great speaker, but what did he say?' "

George Stephanopoulos, deputy campaign manager for Democratic candidate Bill Clinton, may have summed up the mood best when he told New York magazine, "Specificity is a character issue this year."

Mr. Bush, however, stuck mostly to inflamed rhetoric throughout the day Wednesday. He spoke repeatedly of the glories of the Persian Gulf war, the compassion of his wife Barbara as she "held an AIDs baby in her arms," and the obstinacy of the Democratic liberals in Congress.

Not everyone thinks Mr. Bush misfired with that strategy. New Hampshire's former Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey, a conservative Republican, said, "I think he was probably behind the curve a couple of weeks ago, but I think he is probably ahead of it now. . . . In bashing Congress, he is mining a lode of purest gold that is miles wide and deep."

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