Washington — After weeks of uninspired, predictable campaigning, the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary has suddenly, in its last hours, caught fire. George Bush's apparent decision to keep last Saturday night's debate in Nashua, N.H., with ronald Reagan a two-man affair -- after Mr. Reagan had offered to open it up to five other Republican rivals -- could cost Mr. Bush much of his coveted early momentum.
"Arrogant. He wants to be king," fumed exclude candidates Howard H. Baker Jr., Robert Dole, John B. Anderson, and Philip M. Crane after they were asked to leave the stage by the editor of the Nashua Telegraph, the newspaper which sponsored (but did not pay for) the debate.
Even a tingem of voter resentment in so tight a race -- a single point separating Mr. Bush and Mr. Reagan in the latest Boston Globe poll, taken last week -- could tilt the outcome to Mr. Reagan. By the Globe's findings, Mr. Bush had already slipped 10 points to a tie with Mr. Reagan since late January, with Senator Baker of Tennessee and Congressman Anderson of illinois both gaining at Mr. Bush's expense.
Former California Governor Reagan's strategy in inviting the others -- after he agreed to finance the debate with his own campaign funds when the federal Elections Commission objected to the Telegraph sponsoring a two-man debate -- was to put former United Nations Ambassador Bush on the spot and help the other candidates cut into Bush support in crucial New Hampshire.
Since 1952, New Hampshire has always picked the men in its primaries who went on to win the White House in November. Not the least of the reasons for this is that the New Hampshire outcome strongly influences the primaries that follow it.
Mr. Bush has been considered the heavy favorite for the Massachusetts primary the following Tuesday, March 4.
In the important Southern primaries March 8 and 11, he leads Mr. Reagan in Florida and South Carolina, but trails in Georgia and alabama, according to the Atlanta Constitution's latest voter survey.
But Mr. Bush has another problem with his early front-runner exposure. The voters have mostly a generalized favorable impression of him but not much concrete, specific knowledge of his character and stands, surveys show. Early negative impressions may have a greater impact on his candidacy than they would on Mr. Reagan's, whose hard core of supporters has watched him long and closely.
Apart from the Nashua debate incident, the 1980 New Hampshire primary campaign has followed the familiar pattern of person-to-person politics -- typified by Senator Baker answering voter questions in the North Londonderry firehouse, where reporters outnumbered local fok 2 to 1.
Then there have been the predictable tlevision and photographers' stops, often at noon when the lighting is good -- again, typified by Mr. Baker tromping through the mud at a Candia firewood splitting plant.
At times, the going can get lonely. Reporters observerd Senator Dole of Kansas -- whose campaign buttoms were in great demand among buttom fanciers after last wednesday's debate in Manchester -- frequently traveling only with his driver.
The final hours of the campaign belong to the volunteer telephoners, calling every household in the state to rally the turnout. On election day, fleets of cars will be ready, in cities like Manchester, to ferry voters to the polls.