This race's big issue: beating Bush

Democrats consider electability the deciding factor, above all others, prompting many to back Kerry on primary eve.

If John Kerry emerges triumphant from Tuesday's New Hampshire primary election, it will probably be for one reason: perceived electability.

More than any year in memory, political observers say, Democratic voters are intently focused on a single question - who can beat President Bush - and are evaluating each candidate largely on that basis, rather than on the usual mix of issues or even personality. In recent weeks, this has contributed directly to Senator Kerry's rise, with recent polls showing more than half of New Hampshire voters now see him as the candidate with the best chance in a head-to-head matchup with the president.

Yet this focus has also lent an unusual degree of volatility to the race, as voters have seized on - and subsequently had second thoughts about - the electoral chances of different candidates. Each time a new front-runner has emerged, his rivals have quickly sought to demonstrate how Republicans would attack him, often sowing doubts among voters. And as momentum has shifted over the past year here from Kerry to Howard Dean to Wesley Clark and back to Kerry, voters have also seemed to change their minds as to what qualities, precisely, might make a candidate electable.

Candidates have been emphasizing a variety of factors, from military experience (Kerry and General Clark), to Southern roots (Clark and Sen. John Edwards), to the ability to attract new voters (Dr. Dean). But ultimately, say analysts, the factor that is most likely to convince voters of a candidate's electability is recent success, which is why Kerry's Iowa win may now be worth more than anything else.

"When [voters] look at the candidates there's no way they can tell whether they're electable or not," says Dick Bennett, a New Hampshire-based independent pollster. "You prove your electability by winning."

In some ways, it's an unusual focus in this famously independent state, where voters often lean toward underdogs or quirkier candidates. Mr. Bennett attributes the trend to Democrats' visceral dislike of Mr. Bush - and a lingering sense that the White House was stolen in 2000, "so the No. 1 goal is to get it back."

It's not that voters aren't concerned about issues, he adds: Many here are deeply worried about the economy, the availability of healthcare, and the situation in Iraq - an issue that dominated much of the campaign. But they also tend to see the president as the root problem, and while they see differences among the Democratic candidates, they believe any of them would be better than Bush.

When Democrats are asked whether they'd rather have a candidate they agreed with on most issues or a candidate who would have a better chance of beating Bush, they choose the latter by a margin of 2 to 1, says Rich Killion, a pollster at Franklin Pierce College. "That isn't a gap, that's a canyon," he says.

This sentiment is clearly motivating Democrats to a greater extent than in recent cycles, with most observers here expecting a large turnout Tuesday, even amid predictions of a snowstorm.

But it's also created challenges, as candidates struggle to stand out in a race where issue contrasts are less important. At times it has made the process seem strangely depersonalized.

At a recent Clark rally in Portsmouth, one speaker opened by saying, "Now I know many of you are just ABB [Anyone But Bush]," pleading with them to look specifically at Clark's qualifications. Likewise, in Nashua, a voter at a Kerry rally held up a sign that didn't even contain the candidate's name: "He's the one Bush won't beat."

In conversations, voters often seem politically shrewd, thinking not just about how a candidate might fare in this region, but also in the "red states" of the 2000 election. After hearing Kerry in Nashua, Jeff Hastings says he'll probably vote for him, believing he has "a really good shot" at defeating Bush.

A physical-education teacher from Manchester, he's impressed, in particular, by Kerry's war record and his strength on national security - which he believes will be a critical factor in the general election, noting, "It's not 1992 anymore." Still, he adds: "He's going to need a Southern running mate."

Dave Callahan, who owns a jewelry business in Amherst, is torn between Dean and Kerry, but says electability may sway him. "I like Dean," he says. "I think Kerry has a better shot at winning."

Yet this focus on finding a winner has also made voters far more fickle - a trend reflected in the relatively high number of undecided voters or voters who say they could change their minds. Voters who support a candidate on the basis of issues or character are far less likely to defect than are voters looking mainly for a ticket to the White House, say analysts. And while many undecided voters may gravitate toward Kerry on the basis of his Iowa win, that could be undercut by intensifying scrutiny of his record - and a new stream of attacks.

Standing outside the Kerry rally, Edwin Smith passes out fliers arguing that the "Massachusetts liberal" label would doom Kerry. Mr. Smith, who says he worked on Michael Dukakis's unsuccessful 1988 bid - and claims he's not connected to any current campaign - pleads with voters to "ask the hard electability questions before it's too late."

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