PORTSMOUTH, N.H. -- The Republican dinner here was a fund-raiser sponsored jointly by the Rockingham County, Strafford County and Portsmouth City Republican committees.
It was a prototypical example of the Lincoln Day dinners local Republican organizations run all over the country every spring. The tab was $25 (which caused a little grumbling because it was $2 higher than last year) but the meal at Yoken's restaurant -- chicken and the inevitable spear of broccoli -- cost only $14, so there was maybe a couple of thousand to be netted.
There were just under 200 guests, and it seemed that almost all of them had to be introduced -- Rep. Bill Zeliff, the governor's chief of staff, four state senators, the majority leader of the House, the city treasurer, a city commissioner, the register of deeds, the register of probate, a group of state legislators, eight people "who helped make this dinner possible," a stand-in for Gov. Steve Merrill (who was ill), two members of the state Executive Council, and a stand-in for the state party chairman.
But this dinner was different because, being in New Hampshire, it attracted a bona fide candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1996 -- Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee and secretary of education in the Bush administration. Moreover, as Alexander observed, he knew it was a bit of a plum because if he had not come, some other aspirant for 1996 would gladly have done so.
The message, of course, is that the competition for support in the 1996 Republican primary here is very much under way -- in fact, has been for months. If it were not Alexander this time, the visiting fireman might have been Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney or Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, all of whom have been into the state repeatedly in the past few months, or perhaps Gov. Carroll Campbell of South Carolina or former HUD Secretary Jack Kemp.
The campaign is formless at this point, if only because Republicans here know there is plenty of time to make commitments and a great deal of uncertainty about who actually will make the race. The state's leading Republicans -- Governor Merrill, Sens. Bob Smith and Judd Gregg, Zeliff -- are all remaining above the fray, welcoming everyone and studiously neutral.
But the gossip and speculation is epidemic among the activists like those who came to Yoken's. Dole, they hear, may not run after all. Kemp, it is said, has lost a lot of supporters from 1988. Merrill, it is noted, squired fellow Governor Campbell around the state earlier this year. Gramm is the most ubiquitous. Cheney has a lot of appeal to the old George Bush network. Alexander is organizing heavily around his monthly Republican neighborhood meeting television programs, one of which originated in the state last week. And what about Gov. Pete Wilson of California if he wins re-election?
The bottom line is a recognition among the Republicans who would be president that the primary here still 22 months away may be the pivotal political event it has been in the past.
And that is the case, the strategists believe, despite the "front-loading" of the 1996 primary schedule that will mean more than 70 percent of the delegates will be chosen -- and the contest effectively over -- by the end of March 1996. Although there is still some uncertainty, it now appears that primaries will come hot on the heels of New Hampshire in states with huge delegate prizes such as New York, Texas, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and California.
The conventional wisdom is that this concentration of early primaries will put a huge premium on the ability to raise money to establish a presence in those major states.
The campaigning at this stage doesn't make much of an impression on the 150,000 or more Republicans who will vote in the primary. It is directed instead at the 4,000 or 5,000 Republican activists who will be asked to enlist with one or another candidate.
And that is why Lamar Alexander was quite happy to show up at Yoken's the other night. It's what you do if you want to compete in New Hampshire.