MANCHESTER, N.H. -- There was probably less than met the eye in the opening of the New Hampshire primary campaign here last weekend.
There were, to be sure, nine potential candidates for the Republican presidential nomination. There were more than 200 reporters and camera crews to record their every step down Elm Street. And there were those 1,400 Republicans who packed a stuffy hotel ballroom to hear them speak. In short, there were all the trappings of a primary campaign here.
But only two or three of the nine candidates appear at this point to have any realistic chance of becoming serious competitors for the nomination -- Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas and perhaps former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.
And, more to the point, none of the nine came equipped with the kind of political message that would make him or her a strong candidate when the campaign begins to reach an audience larger than a few thousand Republican activists.
Indeed, if there was one thing striking about the Republicans who earned so much press attention here, it was the lack of anything that would pass for a general election message to use against President Clinton next year.
Also clearly missing was a bona fide possibility who might enlist the support of the moderates who, although a minority, make up a significant bloc of Republican primary voters. As one prominent former officeholder put it privately: "I'm sort of leaning to Dole, but I want to see who else gets in."
The "who elses" in this case figure to be either Gov. Pete Wilson of California or, if he doesn't run, Gov. William F. Weld of Massachusetts -- meaning a candidate who combines moderate positions on social issues with conservative fiscal policies.
In a sense, it is unrealistic to expect the campaign to be fully formed now. At this point four years ago, potential Democratic candidates were so intimidated by President George Bush that they were hiding in the underbrush. So there is plenty of time for a Dole or Gramm or someone like Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana to develop a coherent message.
Moreover, this is the point at which the first priority for the candidates must be to build a local support structure. Although no one knowledgeable about New Hampshire primaries believes that organization is as important as television, an organization helps establish a candidate as a legitimate contender.
By that criterion, the "winner" of this preliminary round here may have been Dole, whose organization set up nine "town meetings" around the state that attracted impressive audiences of interested Republicans. At Lebanon, for example, more than 400 people crowded into a hotel ballroom to hear him; a crowd that size in the age of the couch potato would be considered respectable if the primary were next week.
The conventional wisdom has been that Gramm has been lagging behind in enlisting local support, but he used the occasion to have Sen. Robert C. Smith, the state's most $H devoutly conservative officeholder, deliver his endorsement. And Alexander, helped by such respected party activists as Thomas J. Rath and William Cahill, has been working to build a network of supporters through his satellite television "neighborhood meetings."
The candidate messages were, nonetheless, pretty thin stuff. Dole, trying to live down his reputation for having a dark side, spent much of his time trying to be warm and fuzzy, although still a strong leader. Gramm tells all comers he was "conservative before conservative was cool." And Alexander keeps reminding everyone that he is the only candidate who doesn't live within the Beltway in Washington.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania struck a chord with many Republicans who favor abortion rights -- a plurality according to one poll -- by stressing that "abortion should be taken out of politics." But all this seemed to do was suggest an opening here for other supporters of abortion rights -- Wilson or Weld -- with more political credibility.
When the weekend was over, all the candidates could find some comfort. Even such asterisk outsiders as Patrick J. Buchanan, Rep. Robert K. Dornan, Lynn Martin and Alan L. Keyes were able to have their moments on television.
But the real lesson was that, as weak as Bill Clinton may appear, the Republicans still have miles to go.