New Hampshire Very Closely Reads Candidates' Lips

AKING the pledge.''

Although most Americans probably associate the phrase with Alcoholics Anonymous, the run-up to the 1996 presidential primary in New Hampshire is highlighting another meaning: promising not to raise taxes.

Tax policy has emerged as the first hot issue of the Republican presidential race, with GOP hopefuls tossing out tax reform proposals like peanuts at the ball park. And New Hampsire's long-held sensitivity to taxes makes it an important proving ground.

Among the proposals now in the air:

* Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas promises to ''oppose any and all efforts'' to raise income taxes. Many observers say Senator Dole's refusal to take the pledge in 1988 cost him the New Hampshire primary; George ''Read My Lips'' Bush won it on his way to the White House. Dole has also spoken favorably of replacing the current income tax system with a flat tax.

* Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania suggests a 20 percent flat income tax, with deductions for some home mortgages and charitable contributions, and elimination of interest and capital-gains taxes.

* Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana proposes a 17-percent national retail-sales tax instead of the income tax.

* Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander says he would not raise any federal taxes under any circumstances except war. He says he doesn't support Senator Lugar's sales tax idea because it would encroach on states' rights and be too easy to raise. He supports a flat tax, but would keep deductions for charitable contributions and home mortgages.

* Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas ''has talked in general terms about supporting a flatter, simpler tax system,'' says spokesman Gary Koops, but he has not yet offered a specific proposal.

* California Gov. Pete Wilson took the pledge in New Hampshire and has spoken in favor of the Tax Policy Commission's attempts to achieve ''a simpler, fairer, flatter federal tax system.'' (The commission, headed by former Congressman Jack Kemp, was appointed by Dole and House Speaker Newt Gingrich.) Governor Wilson approved a 1991 tax raise in California, but later disowned it. He now advocates a 15 percent cut in state income taxes.

Taking the pledge is a decades-old tradition in New Hampshire politics, says Steve Edwards, chief of staff to Gov. Stephen Merrill (R). It began in 1952 when gubernatorial candidate Hugh Gregg, father of Sen. Judd Gregg (R), promised to oppose a sales tax that the previous legislature had almost enacted. He won the election. The pledge was extended to include opposing a state income tax in the early 1970s. In 1994 it became broader yet: Governor Merrill won 70 percent of the vote, a New Hampshire record, opposing his Democratic rival's proposal for a statewide property tax. For the first time, all GOP New Hampshire Senate candidates took the pledge: They captured 18 of 24 seats. ''People in New Hampshire don't believe that giving more money to government is going to make their lives better,'' Mr. Edwards says.

But is the tax issue as important to American voters elsewhere? Survey data indicate it is, says Everett Ladd, president of the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research in Storrs, Conn. ''Taxes are a big issue with the public as part of a larger issue, the scope of government,'' he says. ''The public thinks government has grown too much.''

While he doesn't like the term ''tax revolt,'' Mr. Ladd says that a ''democratization of taxes'' took place about 25 years ago as President Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs kicked in. ''Taxes began to affect a lot of people with middling incomes.... Before that taxes were a rich man's issue, not an issue for the general public.'' Ladd says a ''significant increase in the percent of income going to taxes'' led to a big increase in public concern.

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