WASHINGTON -- Stephen Merrill, the popular Republican governor of New Hampshire, whose backing has been eagerly (( sought by most candidates for his party's presidential nomination, will endorse Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas this week, people close to the governor said yesterday.
A top Republican official who spoke on condition of anonymity said Mr. Merrill would put his considerable political reputation and well-run statewide organization behind Mr. Dole at a news conference tomorrow in Manchester, N.H.
While the endorsement of the Republican front-runner would be a big blow to Mr. Dole's rivals, several strategists say the real motivation for the early statement of support may be to dissuade Colin Powell from entering the race.
"A Merrill endorsement is a coup for any campaign, but this has every bit as much to do with Colin Powell as it does with New Hampshire politics," the spokesman for former Gov. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Mark Merritt, said when learning of the move.
"Dole is trying to scare Powell out of the race, because once Powell is in the race, the Dole campaign is in deep, deep trouble," he said. "So Dole needs to shore up whatever support he has right away in order to withstand the barrage that will be forthcoming."
Mr. Dole, the Senate majority leader, has already won the backing of New Hampshire's two representatives and one senator, Judd Gregg. The other senator, Robert Smith, supports Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, while the Manchester Union Leader, the state's largest newspaper, has endorsed Patrick Buchanan, the conservative commentator.
"This is really the last major thing that can happen in New Hampshire, if you will," said Vin Weber, a national campaign chairman of the Dole campaign, who said he had no knowledge of the Merrill endorsement. "It means it's very difficult for General Powell, if he runs, to put something together there."
The nation's first primary, scheduled for Feb. 20, is held in New Hampshire. It is a pivotal moment in any presidential election year because it is the first opportunity for large numbers of
voters to cast their ballots for presidential contenders.
In an interview yesterday with WMUR-TV, the ABC affiliate in Manchester, Mr. Merrill declined to say that he would endorse Mr. Dole, saying he would make a decision and an announcement in the middle of the week. But, in recounting a meeting he had with Mr. Dole last week, Mr. Merrill hinted that such an endorsement might be forthcoming.
"For the first time, I said I might endorse someone," Mr. Merrill said.