Make-or-break day in a tiny state

Tomorrow's N.H. primary is especially crucial for candidates Bradley and McCain.

"Live Free or Die," license plates here read.

But in New Hampshire's snow-encrusted field of political dreams, a day before the first presidential primary, the state motto for most of the candidates might as well be "Do Well or Die."

As the men who would be president fight for those dreams, they are pulling out all the stops. Texas Gov. George W. Bush, the Republican seen as most likely to win his party's nomination, brought in his family to campaign with him in a rare appearance - including his parents, the much-admired ex-president and Barbara Bush.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, whom polls show slipping into a dead heat with Governor Bush for this state's crucial contest tomorrow, is hammering hard on the issue of leadership. A President McCain would not need "on-the-job training," he now says repeatedly.

On the Democratic side, former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, also fighting for his political life, is going hard after the women's vote - a weak point in his support - and issuing his toughest attacks yet on rival Vice President Al Gore over his honesty and integrity.

In the entire presidential field, Mr. Gore appears the most relaxed and confident. After a bounce from his commanding victory last week in the Iowa caucuses, Gore's lead has sunk back to pre-Iowa levels - but remains in the solid 8-point range.

In back-to-back speeches over the weekend before state Democratic activists, Gore hit all his applause lines and wowed a largely sympathetic crowd, while Mr. Bradley seemed professorial and struggled to generate much buzz.

"I think [Gore] is going to hit a good stride," says Peter Flood, a former Democratic congressional candidate here. "Now his vigor is getting more pointed."

Before a more welcoming crowd the next day, at the YWCA in Manchester, Bradley regained the spark that has made him a tough competitor for Gore in New Hampshire during these past months. But with little time remaining before the voting begins here, analysts say the clock could simply be running out for the former senator and basketball star.

The Bush-McCain matchup

Though the sparring between Gore and Bradley has made for some good political theater - Bradley finally got the vice president to acknowledge that his support for abortion rights has become more firm since Gore's days as a member of Congress - the real drama here has been between Messrs. Bush and McCain.

From the beginning of the 2000 campaign last year, the upstart McCain has banked on a strong showing in New Hampshire to catapult his campaign into a serious challenge to Bush, the GOP establishment's new favorite son. McCain skipped the Iowa caucuses so he could focus his time and resources - far more modest than Bush's - on the Granite State. His plan is to parlay a strong showing here into another powerful performance in the South Carolina primary on Feb. 19.

But these final days of New Hampshire are showing McCain how tough it is to beat the party establishment at its own game. Endorsements of Bush by party regulars continue to flow in, heightening his image of inevitability. Bush's massive financial advantage over McCain - including his decision not to accept federal matching funds, thus allowing him to spend without limit here - also hurts the Arizona senator. Bush has bought lots of expensive TV ads in Boston, which are beamed into southern New Hampshire, further burnishing Bush's image of strength.

The key to McCain's strength is the independent vote, now the largest bloc of voters in the state. The question is whether he can get these voters to go to the polls.

"McCain's lead is declining," says Robin Marra of the polling institute at Franklin Pierce College in Rindge, N.H. "He's still doing well among independents, but Bush is doing better among Republicans." Mr. Marra expects about 30 percent of the GOP vote to be independents.

Among Democratic voters, a similar dynamic is at play. Self-identified Democrats are more and more turning to Gore, forcing Bradley to play increasingly to independents. But if independents perceive that Gore has his race locked up, they may opt to vote for the other maverick, McCain, in the tighter race.

Bradley has spent his final days here appealing in particular to women voters, among whom he trails Gore by a substantial margin. In his appearance at the Manchester YWCA, he focused on women's issues, from child abuse and health care to abortion. (Then, to give all the men in the crowd a kick, he brought out former Boston Celtics star player and coach Tommy Heinsohn.)

N.H. as winnower

For all but the national front-runners here, New Hampshire may be the final stand. For McCain, anything less than a victory could spell the end of his campaign, because he trails Bush by a wide margin in South Carolina. For Bradley, a second defeat, following Iowa, could also deal a mortal blow to his campaign. Bradley's saving grace is that he has about as much cash on hand as Gore does. He vows to press on and fight in the next Democratic contests, the March 7 primaries, which include key states such as California and New York.

If Bradley loses in New Hampshire, the Democratic establishment is expected to lean on him to drop out of the race. "A lot of Democrats will say, 'It's time to unite,' " says Republican pollster Linda DiVall. "We don't need to draw down the resources of the eventual nominee."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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