Nashua, N.H. — As New Hampshire Democrats trudge through the snow to the polls today, Sen. Paul Simon is hoping to be No. 2 in his party's first primary election of the 1988 campaign. Mr. Simon makes it clear that he would consider the runner-up position an important triumph. With Gov. Michael Dukakis of neighboring Massachusetts holding a firm lead in surveys of Democratic voters here, the second-place is considered the ``real'' victory by the trailing candidates.
The battle among the Democratic hopefuls for the ``silver medal'' is focusing on Rep. Richard Gephardt, who won the Democratic caucus in Iowa a week ago, and Mr. Simon, who finished just behind Mr. Gephardt.
After his Iowa victory, Gephardt appeared to receive a boost in the Granite State, though he never made a significant dent in Governor Dukakis's commanding lead. Gephardt's Iowa momentum seems to be fading, however, and according to some surveys Simon overtook the Missouri congressman during the weekend.
The Simon-Gephardt battle is one of the hottest in the New Hampshire primary. Late last week the Simon campaign released a damaging television ad aimed at what it characterized as Gephardt's changing positions on the issues. The ad brought cries from the Gephardt camp of misrepresentation and negative campaign tactics.
``Gephardt voted for the MX missile, the B-1 bomber, the neutron bomb, and chemical weapons,'' says a somber announcer in the TV spot. ``Simon opposed them.''
Simon staged a parallel attack on Gephardt along the campaign trail. ``The biggest snow job of the last seven years,'' Simon announced during near blizzard conditions in New Hampshire, ``has been the tax bills that passed in 1981 and 1986.'' He quickly points out that Gephardt supported both measures.
In response to the charge that he was engaging in negative campaigning, Simon told the Monitor: ``I think that when you are making comparisons on votes ... [it] is very legitimate. When you issue [personal] broadsides ... then that is clearly negative.''
Simon was referring to comments directed at Sen. Albert Gore by Gephardt's campaign manager late last week. Mr. Gore and his staff were the subject of insults. Fred Martin, Gore's campaign manager, was refered to as ``the mosquito that roared.''
``My own impression,'' Mr. Martin says, ``was that [the Gephardt people] are under a lot of pressure: They have this debt, they didn't get the votes out of Iowa they hoped to get, and I think they are expressing frustration with their own situation.''
Terry Michael, Simon's director of communications, also rejects the suggestion that Simon has indulged in improper campaign practices. ``It not only makes sense, it's only fair for other candidates to point out [Gephardt] has been inconsistent,'' Mr. Michael says.
``What we are trying to do is communicate Gephardt's past so that people who know his name also know something about him,'' Michael continues. They [journalists and the political community] know his past is not consistent with his commercials.''
Asked about reports that the Simon campaign is in financial trouble, Michael says: ``We believe that Gephardt is in a significantly worse position than we are. ... Our campaign has a manageable amount of debt, probably in the $500,000 range - the banks who gave us a loan on Wednesday areed that it was manageable or they wouldn't have given us another loan. Our fund raising has been doing well this week....''
Gore, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, and Gary Hart all say they expect to exceed expectations in the primary. For the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who already exceeded expectations in Iowa, a fourth-place finish here would be a strong showing.