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Bush running scared of N.H. protest vote


MERRIMACK, N.H. -- George Bush will announce today for the third and last time that he is running for president. Once again he is running scared.

This time Mr. Bush's most worrisome opponent is not the Republican challenger he faces here next week in the nation's first primary, nor any in the field of Democratic little-knowns vying to be their party's nominee.

President Bush is shadowboxing with his own record on managing the economy, fearing a strong protest vote here in this most recession-wracked of states could strengthen all his would-be foes.

"I am really concerned about it," Ron Kaufman, the White House political director, said of the New Hampshire vote Tuesday. "We could get hurt up there."

The latest overnight tracking polls suggest there's cause for worry.

A sudden plunge registered Monday in Mr. Bush's standing against GOP challenger Patrick J. Buchanan put the president's three-day average at six percentage points below what it had been last weekend, according to Dick Bennett, president of American Research Group, a local polling firm.

Unless this slide continues, the president will probably keep Mr. Buchanan from claiming the 40 percent second-place finish the White House dreads. But the president and his team are aiming to deliver a knockout punch that would render the conservative commentator nomore than a nuisance for the remainder of the primary season.

After a late and stumbling start, the Bush campaign is throwing all of its considerable resources into the fight.

Following the president's formal announcement this morning in a Washington hotel ballroom filled with a thousand loudly cheering partisans, Mr. Bush will repeat the performance up here in a series of carefully staged appearances. He'll go from the Republican-run state legislature to a sympathetic gathering of police and firefighters, and on to greet voters at a suburban shopping mall where a banner on the marquee is already trumpeting his arrival.

Mr. Bush is scheduled to return here Saturday for a full weekend of campaigning on the eve of the primary, twice as long as had earlier been planned. The president is following a host of surrogates who've been making the case for him here, including his popular wife, Barbara Bush, and Vice President Dan Quayle.

Former President Ronald Reagan was pressed into service with a surprise taped endorsement of his two-time running mate that was aired at a glittery dinner for the conservative faithful last Saturday, prompting a charge of dirty tricks from Buchanan backers.

The Bush administration also anted up more than $240 million worth of good will gifts to New Hampshire in the form of Medicaid reimbursements, a redevelopment project at Pease Air Force Base and a pilot project for Small Business Administration loans.

Meanwhile, the Bush campaign has been saturating radio and television airwaves with paid advertisements and free presidential interviews liberally doled out to the local media.

Heart-stirring shots of the shirtsleeved president in the Saudi Arabian desert with the troops of Operation Desert Storm -- the heaviest artillery in the Bush campaign's call to GOP loyalty -- made their television debut last weekend.

Direct attacks on Mr. Buchanan, which may yet come in negative ads during the final days of the contest, have so far been limited to surrogates.

But he is clearly irritated by Mr. Buchanan's non-stop reminders of the president's broken "no new taxes" pledge made here four years ago, and by the challenger's attempt to fuel perceptions that Mr. Bush doesn't care about the travails of working Americans.

Mr. Bush is vigorously pursuing a strategy of deflecting the anger here over the loss of jobs, income and real estate value to somebody else -- mostly the Democratic Congress.

Virginia Lamberti, a New Hampshire mother of four who operates a business out of her home, may be typical of the conflicted Republicans in whose hands Mr. Bush's fate rests.

She says she has her doubts about Mr. Buchanan but she's annoyed that Mr. Bush violated a tax pledge he made largely to defeat then-competitor Robert J. Dole and get him out of the presidential race.

"Bush is probably going to win anyway," she said of the presidential contest. "But I think this is about trying to send him a message."

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