For N.H. activists, a focus on winning; Likely voters weigh the candidates, turn to McCain, Bradley

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MILFORD, N.H. -- "I was originally for Forbes," says Steven Desmarais, who owns a construction company in nearby Amherst. "I really like what he has to say. But he's not electable."

So Desmarais has moved from publisher Steve Forbes to Gov. George W. Bush of Texas as his likely choice in the Republican primary Feb. 1.

"I want the Republicans to win, and that requires a candidate who can win," he says.

But Robert Rowe, a retired lawyer and a state legislator, has a different view of Bush and has signed on to help Sen. John McCain of Arizona.

"When McCain comes into a room, you know he's a leader," he says. "Bush dances in like a cheerleader."

These conflicting views by two members of the Milford Rotary Club seem to define the Republican campaign with four months to go. The contest is seen increasingly as one in which Bush's position is so dominant that only McCain has a chance to challenge him. And if that challenge materializes, it will happen only because Bush fails to appear serious enough to be president.

Desmarais and Rowe were among a handful of Rotarians who formed a de facto focus group for a visiting reporter the other day after a club luncheon at the Community Center. And what was most striking was how advanced the debate had become with this group of community activists.

Three months ago, no one except a few political junkies would admit paying any attention to the campaign. Now, some of these Rotarians have weighed, tentatively accepted and turned away from one candidate to another.

Joanne Laychak, a real estate broker, says she, too, originally was interested in Forbes before she began to focus on who could win.

"He's a good family man, and I liked what he said," she says. She also was intrigued by Elizabeth Hanford Dole as the first "serious" female candidate for president. But she, along with several of her fellow Rotarians, has seen Dole in person, only to come away less impressed.

"I don't think she can do it," says Laychak, adding hopefully, "maybe for vice president."

"I thought she was better as a figure on television than when I saw her in person," Desmarais says. "I don't think she's electable."

Rowe, a McCain supporter, says, "She's an executive but not a leader."

What they're made of

Richard D'Amato, a retired bank president, hasn't decided whom he'll support. But he says he is following the campaign with interest, and he defends the length of the process that has been under way here for nearly a year.

"It goes on for a long time, but that's how we find out what they're made of," D'Amato says. "You really learn something about them."

Desmarais is a defender of the New Hampshire tradition of holding the first presidential primary, and, as a result, receiving so much personal attention from the candidates.

"It's very enjoyable if you pay attention to it," he says. "Some people get irritated, but I think it's quite an honor, and everybody's got a picture [with a candidate] in the living room."

Limited interest

However, it would be a mistake to assume that most of the 200,000 New Hampshire voters likely to cast ballots in the Republican primary are paying much attention. On the contrary, if you survey a dozen folks coming out of a doughnut shop, the first eight say they have been paying little or no attention, two confess to following the campaign a little and only two profess to be interested and to have made a choice.

William Ferguson III, who retired from his insurance business and now writes a weekly column for the Milford Cabinet, says the limited interest is reflected in the few letters the newspaper receives about the presidential candidates.

"I'm sitting back and watching," he says, "but it's too soon to decide."

Several of the Republicans did march in the Labor Day parade, though, and Bush had his hair trimmed at Joe's barbershop on the Oval, an obligatory stop on the town square for GOP candidates.

"That's when interest began to pick up, after the parade," says Laychak.

If there has been a change in the temper of the electorate here over the summer, that change has two elements. The first, reflected by these Rotarians, is the emergence of a picture of the Republican competition as essentially limited to Bush vs. McCain. Steve Duprey, the Republican state chairman, says McCain has caused "a spark of enthusiasm."

The critical question is whether McCain can make himself a more serious player here in light of his decision to bypass the Iowa caucuses because he expects a backlash against his opposition to federal subsidies for ethanol, a synthetic alcohol made from corn. In the 28 years in which the Iowa and New Hampshire events have been juxtaposed, no one has won here and gone on to be nominated without "doing well" in Iowa -- not necessarily winning but at least meeting expectations for his performance.

But most voters do not follow the campaign as closely as Rowe and Desmarais. Instead, most rely on television coverage in which McCain could be missing from the screen for the final 10 days or two weeks before Iowa.

'He's not a politician'

McCain might try to remedy the situation a little by taking part in the one debate scheduled in Iowa in January and playing the role of the candidate willing to tell the voters what they don't want to hear. Thus, he would send another message to New Hampshire about his independence, his strongest suit by far, while providing himself an excuse for faring poorly in the caucuses.

"What I like about John McCain," says a delivery service driver, "is that he doesn't take anything from anybody. He's not a politician. You can tell that from the way he goes on about campaign corruption."

Tom Stewart, a former New York police officer, puts it this way: "People like Bush because he seems like a nice guy on television, and they like McCain because he says what's on his mind. Up here, that kind of stuff goes down pretty good. They don't like all that dancing around in Washington."

'Bradley fits in here'

Among Democrats here, there is an assumption that Bill Bradley, the former senator from New Jersey, is running even with or ahead of Vice President Al Gore.

"Bradley fits in here, and Gore has to make people forget who he's been hanging around with the last eight years," says Jane Reece, a retired teacher.

The Clinton burden is a heavy one for Gore to carry. Asked about the president's image, Desmarais and Rowe find something on which they can easily agree.

"Pathetic," Desmarais says.

"People here are appalled by his lying," Rowe says.

When someone suggests that everyone has made a lot of money from the economic boom during the Clinton years, D'Amato says, "We could have done that with a chimpanzee in the White House."

Pub Date: 10/04/99

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