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2 N.H. women show limits moderate Republicans face


CONCORD, N.H. -- Liz Hager considered supporting Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania but now has about decided to sign on with the presidential campaign of Gov. Pete Wilson of California, although she disagrees with some of his positions. Susan McLane has decided to sit this one out.

Hager and McLane are members of a group that used to be called "the Concord crowd" -- liberal-to-moderate Republicans who made up a significant, if minority, bloc in both presidential primaries and state politics in New Hampshire. But it is a bloc that has declined steadily in both numbers and influence over the last two decades.

A generation ago, the moderates had enough clout to help elect one of their own, Walter Peterson, to the governorship. More recently, they could be comfortable about seeing Warren B. Rudman serving in the Senate.

But now the party here seems dominated from top to bottom by highly committed conservatives. And the question is whether there is still enough of the moderate group to make Wilson a serious competitor.

Liz Hager thinks so. Because the abortion rights issue is important to her, she considered Specter -- to the point of inviting friends in to meet him. But Hager is also enough of a political realist to recognize that Wilson, unlike Specter, has a reasonable chance to win the nomination and defeat President Clinton.

Even if Wilson falls a little short of being the perfect candidate -- "I can settle for 85 percent," she says -- Hager realizes there aren't likely to be a lot of alternatives for a liberal unwilling to defect to the Democrats. "It's hard for a Republican like me."

McLane has been a party activist for almost two generations and had enough support around here to be elected to the state Senate with relative ease.

And in the past she usually could find a Republican presidential candidate to support. But after getting a call from an agent for Wilson the other day, she said, "I've decided I'm going to stay out of it this time."

The problem for McLane is the rush to the right in the Republican field -- candidates like Bob Dole and Lamar Alexander trying to match the conservatism of Phil Gramm and the triumphant House Republicanism of Newt Gingrich.

"They're all compromising," McLane said. "The Democrats are all chicken, and the Republicans are all seeing who can get further to the right."

It is not a situation peculiar to New Hampshire. On the contrary, there are still moderate Republicans all over the country seeking someone they can support with some enthusiasm -- who were offended by the moralistic tone of their party's convention at Houston three years ago.

The question is whether there are enough of them to make Wilson viable, because it is clear they are no longer anything but a pronounced minority.

At the local level here, there is little solace for Republican moderates. Sen. Robert C. Smith, who is backing Gramm, and Sen. Judd Gregg, supporting Dole, are devoutly conservative. And Gov. Stephen Merrill, still neutral at this point, is a politician whose urbane charm masks a hard-line conservatism on most issues.

Merrill is convinced, for example, that the Republican presidential candidates need to embrace the "Contract with America" during the primary campaign.

"The people of New Hampshire view the contract as one of those markers on the political trail to the White House," he says.

Although it is "not a profound political document," Merrill argues, "it's meaningful in New Hampshire because people can understand it and know whether we're keeping it."

This position would seem to suggest Merrill might be closer to jTC Gramm than to Dole in the primary contest since Gramm has embraced the contract while the Senate majority leader still shows some ambivalence about it.

But Merrill continues to insist he is not prepared to make a choice, and seems to be weighing some doubts about Gramm's ability to strike a responsive chord with Republicans here against doubts about Dole's commitment to conservative principles.

For Hager, who lost a Republican gubernatorial primary to Merrill three years ago, neither Dole nor Gramm could possibly fill the bill, so she is probably lucky to have the Wilson option. It is not a good time for moderate Republicans. The "Concord crowd" is history.

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