IT'S been almost 10 months since the Republican presidential campaign kicked off in Manchester, N.H., and millions of dollars later, the polls have changed little.
Kansas Sen. Bob Dole continues to hover in the high 30s to low 40s, while the other candidates can barely make it out of single digits. The only surprise has been magazine publisher Steve Forbes, who has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV and radio ads in the New Hampshire market hammering on his flat-tax proposals to rocket himself into second place, behind Mr. Dole and ahead of commentator Pat Buchanan and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.
The support for Mr. Forbes and his flat-tax proposal must seem ironic to the other candidates who've campaigned long and hard, pushing their own tax-reform proposals without making much headway. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who has suspended his campaign for lack of money, also pushed hard for a flat tax. And Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar advocates a national retail-sales tax to replace the income tax. Forbes's success testifies to the power of media advertising, even in a state where pressing the flesh is supposed to be king.
Dole, who has run several campaigns before, is well known in New Hampshire, and this gives him a big boost. The feeling among Granite Staters that it's Dole's turn seems widespread. He enjoys the endorsements of Gov. Steve Merrill, Sen. Judd Gregg, and a host of other local GOP officials.
But Dole's support, though broad, appears shallow. In a WMUR-Dartmouth College New Hampshire Primary poll conducted Oct. 22-25, about half of Dole's supporters said they would have switched to Colin Powell had he entered the race. The poll also showed that while 41 percent of respondents, all likely GOP primary voters, had something positive to say about Dole, 47 percent had negative comments. Mr. Buchanan has an even bigger image problem; 20 percent had positive comments, while 44 percent had negative things to say. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm was even at 30 percent each. Only Mr. Alexander and Forbes, on the other hand, had positives outweighing negatives: 22 percent to 14 percent in Alexander's case and 24 percent to 17 percent in Forbes's.
Asked what issue they most wanted the candidates to discuss, 24 percent of respondents said the deficit; 10 percent said taxes; 9 percent said the economy; 9 percent said health care; and 9 percent said Medicare. Issues such as declining ethics (3 percent), unemployment (2 percent), foreign aid (2 percent), and abortion (2 percent) were far behind.
Certainly Dole's image could be enhanced or damaged by the outcome of the budget negotiations in Washington. If he is perceived as having brokered a compromise that pleases a majority of Republican voters, he'll be stronger. If not, his campaign could begin a long, slow tailspin. Should that happen, a candidate such as Alexander, unburdened by a congressional voting record, could begin to catch fire.
Gramm, making no headway whatever in New Hampshire, despite the support of Sen. Bob Smith and a platform that ought to warm local antitax hearts, is placing his hopes elsewhere. He has angered New Hampshire voters by appearing to support a primary in Delaware four days later. (New Hampshire law requires the state's primary to be one full week before any other.) And he's upset Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad (R), a Dole supporter, by entering a Feb. 6 Louisiana caucus that preempts Iowa's first-in-the-nation party meeting Feb. 12. A federal court has turned away a challenge to Louisiana's caucus; Gramm is expected to do well there.
Meanwhile, many voters continue to express restlessness with the current field of hopefuls. One interesting sign: A major polling firm recently surveyed New Hampshire voters to explore potential support for former Rep. Jack Kemp. And some of former Vice President Dan Quayle's supporters are urging him to reconsider his decision not to run. But given the amount of money and organization that will be necessary to sustain a viable campaign during the shortened February-to-April primary period, it may be too late for a new candidacy.