BEDFORD, N.H. -- A bitter, and intensely personal, three-way primary shootout in New Hampshire escalated yesterday as Sen. Bob Dole launched a new attack on Lamar Alexander, hoping to stop his rival's fast-rising candidacy.
As the GOP candidates crossed the state's snowy landscape in search of last-minute votes, Mr. Dole targeted Mr. Alexander in a new negative TV ad as a "tax-and-spend liberal who's not what he pretends to be."
The attack, on the final weekend of the campaign here, reflects the double-barreled threat now facing Mr. Dole: from Patrick J. Buchanan, who has pulled into a virtual tie for the lead in the latest polls, and Mr. Alexander, the former Tennessee governor.
Meantime, President Clinton, facing no serious challenger in the Democratic primary, spent yesterday on the icy campaign trail here. Appealing for support in the state that made him the "Comeback Kid" four years ago, he pledged that, if re-elected, "I won't give you a miracle. But I will give you progress."
A crescendo of negative political messages is battering New Hampshire voters, many of whom have yet to make up their minds in the tight GOP race. The unprecedented TV and radio campaign by the GOP candidates appears to have put an end to this state's cherished tradition as a place where in-person "retail" campaigning is decisive.
The ugly tone of the race has become a potential factor in the outcome, according to Republican politicians and independent analysts.
"We're getting a lot of complaints about that," said Richard Bennett, an independent pollster in Manchester. He said that Mr. Dole, whose negative campaign has been the most aggressive in recent days, could well suffer from a voter backlash.
Yesterday brought new charges of smear tactics from Mr. Buchanan, who is waging a TV ad war of his own against the Senate majority leader. He accused the Dole forces of dirty tricks aimed at undermining his candidacy.
"I'm a graduate of the Richard Nixon school of politics; I can spot this stuff a mile away," said Mr. Buchanan, who claimed that the Dole campaign was placing anti-Buchanan telephone calls to voters.
Though Mr. Dole has lost here twice before, in the 1980 and 1988 primaries, he remains the favorite to finish on top in Tuesday's election, in the view of New Hampshire Republicans and independent analysts.
The state's senior senator, Bob Smith, a Republican, said yesterday that "it would be a surprise if Bob Dole did not win."
Aides describe Mr. Dole as grimly determined to ride out the current, rocky period in his campaign. The Kansas senator won last week's caucuses in Iowa by the slenderest of margins, and he has seen his poll numbers in New Hampshire slip steadily in recent weeks.
His candidacy continues to be haunted by a lack of enthusiasm from rank-and-file Republicans. Repeating a pattern first seen in Iowa, the crowd at a Dole campaign rally yesterday in Derry, N.H,, was padded with out-of-state supporters, in this case, from as far away as Pennsylvania.
"All my life has been in preparation for this moment and this mission," Mr. Dole declared. "I'm a common-sense conservative appealing to every element of our party."
Mr. Dole plans no dramatic moves in the final hours of the primary campaign, according to aides.
Yesterday, he rode a snow plow for the cameras, the same sort of thing George Bush did on his way to victory here in 1988.
Mr. Bush had the energetic support that year of then-Gov. John Sununu. Yesterday, Mr. Dole paid a call on the former governor, who later revealed that he would vote for him, according to WMUR-TV.
Another key to Mr. Bush's 1988 victory was a last-minute attack ad that accused the Mr. Dole of waffling over taxes, the issue of supreme importance to many New Hampshire Republicans. Yesterday, at the exact same stage of the campaign that the fateful Bush ad went on the air, Mr. Dole launched an attack commercial of his own that his strategists hope will prove just as decisive.
The 30-second commercial attempts to define Mr. Alexander as a taxer, noting that he proposed a state income tax while governor of Tennessee. Such an idea is anathema in tax-averse New Hampshire, the only state without a sales or income tax.
Mr. Alexander responded by denying that he had proposed a state income tax, while conceding that the idea was one of
several alternatives considered, and rejected, during his administration.
He said the latest attack reflects the "hollowness" of Mr. Dole's candidacy.
"He hasn't got one single idea; all he can do is run negative ads against me," Mr. Alexander said on CNN's "Evans and Novak" program yesterday.
Mr. Dole's decision to target Mr. Alexander reflects a calculation by his strategists that, short of winning here, the senator's top priority must be to prevent Mr. Alexander from running ahead of him here and emerging as a serious contender for the nomination.