MANCHESTER, N.H. — FORGET about policy positions. As the political advertisements here show, the field of Republican candidates has a more basic problem: Who are they?
Take Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. His campaign is running a television spot that explores his unfortunate childhood: His father died young and the family was poor, yet his mother prodded him to a doctorate in economics.
If it is pure Americana, it is also a response to voter surveys. His campaign found that most people thought he was a lawyer from a wealthy background.
Senator Gramm is not alone. Four months before the nation's first primary, to be held Feb. 20, Republican candidates are engaged in the earliest advertising campaign in history. Former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander started running TV spots in early-bird New Hampshire last June. Billboards tower over Main Street here. The radio waves are clogged and mailboxes stuffed.
The push to advertise early is rippling through other important states such as Iowa, Florida, and California.
''There's a lot of 'don't know who in the world are these people,' no one knows who they are,'' says William Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
The question is whether the early spending is helping. A poll taken for WMUR-TV in Manchester from Oct. 12 to 16 shows all the candidates mired in single digits except front-runner Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas. The field does worse if retired Gen. Colin Powell is factored in.
Staff in the various Granite State campaign headquarters are quick to refer to the fall of 1991, when the Democratic field was know as the ''seven dwarfs,'' and few were putting money on little-known Bill Clinton.
But running expensive television spots this early is risky. Candidates face federal campaign-spending caps in each state. In New Hampshire, candidates may not spend more than $600,000 on the primary campaign.
The early spending may reflect, in part, demographic changes in New Hampshire. More residents in the southern part of the state commute to Boston for work or receive Boston television. Where handshaking was once most important, television and other media such as the Internet have come into their own here.
''The formula is changing,'' says Hugh Gregg, former Granite State governor. ''Television is more important than it used to be. How effective it will be is something else.''
The important calculation is how much to save for the final weeks before the vote. Senator Dole's lead gives him a crucial advantage. His campaign won't run television ads until January, enabling him to spend more now on his organization in the state.
The pressure on the rest of the field to hit television, in contrast, is high. As Gary Hart demonstrated in 1984, a strong second-place finish often generates the main headline when the front-runner is so obvious. Gramm, former Governor Alexander, and former Nixon aide Pat Buchanan make a fairly tight second tier.
Then there are wild cards Morry Taylor and Steve Forbes, two multimillionaires who are financing their own campaigns and thus are not bound by the spending cap. Some campaign insiders estimate that Mr. Forbes has spent more than $500,000 this month on advertising.
Of the other candidates, Alexander has spent the most thus far. Third-quarter spending reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, which log outlays through September, show that he has shelled out more than $100,000 in New Hampshire. Gramm has spent about half that and Buchanan, who entered the race later, almost $28,000. Starting this month, Gramm and Alexander have begun spending about $10,000 a week.
In previous campaigns, candidates have exceeded the spending cap consciously. Mr. Gregg assumes they'll do it again this year. ''They'll get a slap on the wrist and have to pay a penalty, but big deal,'' he says.
While Gramm is playing pauper economist, Alexander is dressing up as the folksy anti-Washington candidate. In a recent TV ad, he walks around New Hampshire in checkered flannel asking voters, ''May I say hello?''
Buchanan is also challenging Washington on everything from campaign finance reform to international trade pacts. Forbes, meanwhile, is trying to boost his flat-tax proposal and recently criticized Dole for his decision to delay a vote on term limits.
Absent from the airwaves, but available on a campaign home video, is Bob Dole, war hero and tested leader, riding above the fray.