Manchester, N.H. — Republican and Democratic candidates may sense in the steel gray skies over New Hampshire's Merrimack River Valley the harsh political truths of next Tuesday's presidential primary.
No major candidate at the moment escapes the feeling of risks. Not even Republican George Bush, thrust "out of the pack" by the Jan. 21 Iowa caucuses to rival longtime GOP favorite Ronald Reagan. And not President Carter who, on the Democratic side, leads Sen. Edward M. Kennedy by 16 points in a University of New Hampshire poll.
The candidate's chief concerns:
* Entering the final weekend, a high number of undecided voters -- with estimates ranging from 12 to 25 percent -- could pitch the election either way. On the Republican side, this could mean either a victory for either Mr. Bush or Mr. Reagan, with powerful ramifications either way. Or it could mean a narrower-than-anticipated Carter margin, which the President's backers worry would be interpreted as Kennedy momentum.
* Foreign events have muted the ideological struggle within the two parties and confused the New Hampshire outlook. Both Mr. Carter and Mr. Kennedy have support from liberal as wells as conservative elements in the state Democratic Party, observes Robert Craig director of the University of New Hapmshire poll.
"Bush has been saying he is a moderate candidate," Mr. Craig adds. "But while he has 37 percent of the moderate votes, Reagan has 31 percent among likely moderate GOP voters."
Support for New Hampshire front-runners Carter and Bush is seen as "soft." Bush people wonder what will happen to their candidate's image as a "comer" if he is strongly challenged by Mr. Reagan in New Hampshire.
"We admit our support has softened," says, Tim Kraft, Mr. Carter's campaign strategist. "What will it take for us to win in New Hampshire?" he asks. "Will 3 points be a win?" -- suggesting that the President's 3-point victory margin over Senator Kennedy in the Maine caucuses was not reported by the media as a clear-cut win.
For the other candidates, the New Hampshire balloting appears to be coming too quickly for events to turn in their favor. The Republican forum Feb. 20 in Manchester, N.H., change little. Rep. John B. Anderson repeated his Iowa impression as the most vivid thinker; Sen. Robert Dole as the most humorous; Rep. Philip M. Crane as bright but professorial; and former Texas Gov. John B. Connally as self-assured. But together they may draw only a few more votes than Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., now rated as in third place, who seems himself to be going nowhere in New Hampshire.
Mr. Reagan, who did not debate in Iowa, was not seen here as helping himself with his appearance.
"We're facing an uphill battle the final week," says Jeff Petrich, Senator Kennedy's New Hampshire campaign spokesman. "There are some encouraging signs: the number of undecideds and the softness of Carter's support.
"But the people are still more concerned with the welfare of the hostages in Iran.Until that situation is resolved, consideration of the bread-and-butter issues that in November we thought would be pivotal will be postponed.
"Carter's not being here campaigning is in our favor," Mr. Petrich says. "New Hampshire voters want to see candidates firsthand. But it cuts the other way, too. A percentage say they understand why he can't come up here while the hostages are being held.
"In our polling, we are finding foreign affairs up here a momentary concern. If you press people harder about what really troubles them, they talk about the price of gasoline at the pump.
"Carter has to be worried. He's receiving momentary acclaim. That bubble has to burst. That's why Kennedy says he's in it for the duration.
"The unpatriotic charge is hurting us," Mr. Petrich continues. "New Hampshire is still a conservative state.
"The public's perception that the hostages are about to be released is as damaging to us as the actual release would be just before the New Hampshire primary. It keeps the preoccupation on foreign events.
"The turn to domestic issues has to come, but it looks more and more like it will come after New Hampshire."
Mr. Craig agrees "the Carter people fear a testing." "His 2-to-1 lead in national polls cannot hold up. The hostages will come back. then the testing of his foreign policy begins.
"Out will come Carter campaigning to head off a liberal charge. Now Kennedy has 29 percent, they [the Carter team] say. But then 36 percent, and 44 percent. . . ."