Presidential race recalls N.H. primary

CONCORD, N.H. — CONCORD, N.H. -- Here where it all began last winter, things look a little different today. The trees that were bare and bleak are now crimson and gold fading to auburn. The political names in the news are Gregg and Rauh, Arnesen and Merrill rather than Tsongas, Kerrey, Harkin and Buchanan.

But, in a reversal of the usual pattern for New Hampshire, the presidential campaign is essentially the same as what it was during the primary contest last January and February. President Bush, under assault from Patrick J. Buchanan eight months ago, is showing the same weakness he displayed then -- trailing Democratic nominee Bill Clinton by 10 to 12 percentage points and being written off by many of his fellow Republicans.


Moreover, the reasons are essentially the same. Mr. Bush was embarrassed by a weak showing in February -- he captured only 53 percent of the vote in this state's primary -- because he failed to persuade voters that he understood the economic distress in New Hampshire and had a coherent plan for dealing with it.

Instead, he came into the state twice and made things worse for himself, once reading from a card to a group of businessmen: "Message: I care," then with a celebrity, Arnold Schwarzenegger, in tow. The reading among many Republicans was that the president simply did not grasp the severity of their distress.


The same is true today, not just here but nationally, and Mr. Bush has used up the forum of three debates without changing that perception.

Meanwhile, Mr. Clinton has shown the same tenacity he displayed during the primary when, under fire on the Gennifer Flowers episode and his draft history, he managed to get 25 percent of the vote and finish a strong second to Paul Tsongas' 33 percent.

As a result, New Hampshire has become a distillation of the national campaign, which is by no means the usual thing. No Democrat has won the state's four electoral votes since 1964. Four years ago Mr. Bush defeated Michael S. Dukakis with 62.4 percent of the vote.

Thomas Rath, a lawyer and leading Republican activist, finds it hard to put a good face on Mr. Bush's prospects. "There's no question he's behind," he said. The president's performance in the final debate, he added, "may move the numbers but not a lot. It's pretty uphill."

A poll-taker in Manchester, Dick Bennett of American Research Group, has been tracking the campaign all year. "Over the weekend," he said, "it just went away from him here."

That finding, too, squares with other national data, including tracking by the Bush-Quayle national operation. Over the weekend, a source in a position to know said, "the bottom dropped out for Bush" everywhere -- dramatically enough so that there is little reason to believe the president can recover in the final two weeks of the campaign.

The pattern of the campaign here has been remarkably similar to that nationally. Mr. Bennett said, for example, that his surveys both here and elsewhere showed that in June and July voters were saying, in effect, "we'll give Bush a chance. . . . In September, that all stopped. No more."

The support level for Mr. Bush both here and nationally is the rough equivalent of the hard base for any Republican, meaning less than 40 percent of the vote. However, here in New Hampshire he appears to be suffering significantly among moderate Republicans, about one-fourth of the total, who were offended by the extremist conservative tone of the Republican convention in Houston on social, cultural and religious questions.


These are Republicans, said Mr. Bennett, who are "fiscal conservatives but pro-choice and interested in the environment." But the support the president is getting here now is coming largely from voters on the hard right. "The Bush vote," he said, "is mostly from people who are very conservative and pro-life."

Few Republicans seem to see any light at the end of the tunnel. Asked how Mr. Bush could turn it around, Gov. Judd Gregg said: "Just by being himself." But he conceded that the "frustration level" is still high and reflected in the electorate's attitude toward the president.

Like many Republicans who seem to be keeping some distance from the president these days, Mr. Gregg has a personal stake in Mr. Bush's political health. He is running for the Senate seat being vacated with the retirement of Republican Warren Rudman and may be leading his Democratic opponent, John Rauh, but not by an unassailable margin.

There is also a hot contest for governor, in which Republican Steve Merrill is facing a stiffer-than-expected challenge from a liberal Democratic state legislator, Deborah Arnesen.

The conventional wisdom is that both Republicans are ahead, perhaps because there is so little history of Democratic successes here, but by no means home free if Mr. Bush does not come back at least to some degree in the final two weeks. Mr. Bennett, the poll-taker, said: "It has to have some impact on the other Republicans. It hasn't shown up yet, but it has to have some impact."

"I think in the end, they'll hold but these are very competitive races right now," said Mr. Rath, the Republican activist.


Meanwhile, the Democrats here, as elsewhere, are finding it difficult to contain their enthusiasm. "It's happening here," said Chris Spirou, the state Democratic chairman. "We've never had this before. This is a political reversal of fortunes."

No one would describe New Hampshire as a microcosm of the nation. The state is always described as too conservative, too white, too isolated to reflect the nation. But this year the situation here is not markedly different from that anywhere else, or from that during the primary campaign eight months ago.

In those days, both the Democratic Mr. Spirou and the Republican Mr. Rath were telling reporters that economic distress had created an electorate threatening to Mr. Bush not just in New Hampshire. As Mr. Rath put it then, "This thing can travel."

The evidence today is that they were dead right.