The political muskets are already popping in New Hampshire. Almost a year before that state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary, skirmishing broke out here over the weekend among a half-dozen of the country's leading Republicans. The primary target: Vice-President George Bush, the Republican front-runner.
Mr. Bush's foes, led by Senate minority leader Robert Dole of Kansas, are trying to slow the vice-president's rush toward the nomination. Bush has taken a large lead among GOP voters here. But much of that support is soft, polls show, and experts think he is vulnerable.
Three hundred party activists were gathered here for the Republican National Committee's Northeast Leadership Conference, and all of the major Republican hopefuls came to trade shots with their rivals and look for fresh recruits. Each had his own tactics.
Bush, standing above the fray, emphasized his experience at the Central Intelligence Agency and the White House. Senator Dole, while taking potshots at Bush, called for opening the party to blacks, Hispanics, and blue-collar workers. Former Gov. Pierre S. duPont IV of Delaware emphasized radical changes to the welfare program.
The pressure was on all the candidates, except Bush. At the largest gathering, a dinner featuring filet mignon and baked stuffed shrimp at the Sheraton-Tara Hotel, each was given just five minutes to make his case.
Congressman Jack Kemp, calling himself a radical Republican, demanded a pledge from all the candidates to oppose any tax increases. Former Secretary of State Alexander Haig called for Republicans to rally around President Reagan during his current Iran crisis.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld derided Democrat Gary Hart's economic expertise. The Rev. Pat Robertson called for ``the ultimate elimination of communist tyranny from every part of the world, including the Soviet Union.''
Only Bush got special billing. His political ally, Gov. John Sununu of New Hampshire, wangled the keynote speech for Bush at a luncheon. This move riled the other candidates, especially Mr. Kemp and Dole.
Donald Devine, a Dole staff member, says the presidential campaign here is currently in the recruitment phase. During the next few months, Republican activists will be choosing sides and preparing for the long struggle leading up to the voting next February.
Linda Bisson, who helped organize the conference, which included Republicans from 13 states, says many have not decided whom to support. Republicans here are looking for two things, Mrs. Bisson says: ideas, and competence to carry out those ideas.
``It's not just who has ideas, but who has ideas and the ability to execute them,'' she says.
The crowd here did not seem to pick favorites but responded to each candidate's particular message. Though far down in the polls, for example, Governor duPont got a warm response, as did Mr. Haig, Dole, and Kemp.
Mr. Rumsfeld ``helped himself just by showing up,'' one Republican said. He has been out of the public eye for nearly a decade. Bush was also well received. Robertson appeared well organized, though the response to his dinner speech seemed tepid.
Lee Atwater, a Bush strategist, says all the candidates are fighting for a narrow slice of the political spectrum in New Hampshire, where, he says, most GOP voters range from mainstream conservative to far-right conservative.
With that in mind, candidates readily endorsed the President's Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), opposed new taxes, favored welfare reform, and praised the Reagan record.
Political activists say the difficulty for Bush could come when arguments start over specific policies. For example, Kemp wants to push SDI even faster than Mr. Reagan, with deployment in the near future. Bush cannot so easily go beyond Reagan's SDI policy, which calls for a slower pace.
Likewise, Haig implied criticism of Reagan for not battling the Democratic Congress with more vetoes. Reagan's approach, more often geared to compromise, has resulted in mammoth budget deficits, Haig charged.
Although New Hampshire voters pride themselves for their independence, their vote can be strongly influenced by the Iowa caucuses, which come a week sooner. ``Anyone who does poorly in Iowa is finished in New Hampshire,'' one Republican says.
That could be a warning for Bush. While he leads his closest rival 40 to 14 in a recent poll here, Bush has fallen behind Dole in recent Iowa polls.