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N.H. Republicans don't find the candidates much to their tastes


NASHUA, N.H. -- With almost 60 years of voting experience behind her, Republican Margery Fenton says she "can't ever remember being in this boat before."

She's unhappy with the way President Bush is managing the economy, and she'd like him to know it. But Patrick J. Buchanan, the conservative commentator running in Tuesday's primary as the most likely GOP alternative, "is not an either-or," for Mrs. Fenton, 84. She thinks he's too conservative "and a racist."

So, like many disgruntled Republicans eager to demonstrate their feelings, she's torn about how to do it. Some will grudgingly stick with Mr. Bush; some have switched their party registration to independent so they can choose a Democrat; some won't vote at all.

"He lost me and my whole family, that's six of us," said Louis Riendeau, 51, of his departure from the GOP rolls -- a gesture of disdain for the president after he lost a 26-year construction job last year.

Instead of casting a direct vote against the president's renomination, Mr. Riendeau says his ballot will likely show up in the plus column for a Democrat -- former Massachusetts Sen. Paul E. Tsongas.

"New Hampshire Republicans will give him the message, anyway: 'Read my lips,' " he predicted.

In fact, the latest surveys of likely Republican voters suggest that the president's support is in steady decline and that the number of undecided voters is rising.

Mr. Bush's six-hour visit to the state Wednesday, after formally announcing his candidacy, seemed to have had little impact because the draft-dodging controversy surrounding Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas got more attention that day.

But however poorly Mr. Bush fares in the nation's first primary, he would almost certainly do worse if voters were more enthusiastic about his opponents.

"I just don't think Buchanan has the experience and background necessary to lead the country," said a retired bank director and corporate officer from Nashua who preferred not to be named.

He, too, had switched his registration to independent because of his disillusionment with the president on the economy. "But I haven't seen anyone on the Democratic side I'm particularly interested in, either," the former banker said.

Until recently, voter disenchantment with Mr. Bush was much less evident in the polls than in personal interviews such as these, where voters encountered at random in shopping centers, restaurants, fast food joints and New Hampshire neighborhoods were able to more fully explain their difficulty at making a choice.

Now the numbers are also starting to reveal a Republican electorate that is highly volatile.

For example, a USA Today/CNN survey by Gallup puts Mr. Bush at 59 percent and Mr. Buchanan at 33 percent when only the two Republican choices are listed. But the American Research Group, a local polling firm, reported that the president's support dropped to 43 percent when likely Republican voters were told that there are two dozen names on the ballot. Mr. Buchanan collects 29 percent, and other candidates pick up 6 percent, with 22 percent undecided.

Seeming to express the sentiments of those Republicans who find themselves conflicted, the Keene (N.H.) Sentinel declined to make an endorsement in the GOP race.

"The unappealing choice between George Bush and Patrick Buchanan is one we would rather not consider," the newspaper said Thursday. "We suspect we are not alone."

The Buchanan camp has been wooing those conflicted voters with advertisements featuring average citizens telling their own tales of economic woe and blaming Mr. Bush.

"The ads are absolutely devastating," said Dick Bennett, president of the American Research Group, who says his polls suggest that Mr. Buchanan has been successful in pulling Republicans away from Mr. Bush to the undecided category and may succeed in winning many of those to his column on primary day.

"I only wish I was a Republican so I could vote for Buchanan and send a message to Bush," said Democrat Ann Marie Patell.

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