IT was a raw January night. A freezing rain had drizzled all day, covering New Hampshire's highways with mushy ice and making sidewalks as slick as skating ponds. Yet nothing kept Pat Provencher and Joe Elcock from showing up at a political forum here to boost their favorite presidential candidate, Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas.
"I like what Clinton says about getting back to the family," says Mrs. Provencher, who works six nights a week as foreman in a nearby auto-parts factory. "The whole welfare system in this country drives me crazy. I believe in helping people, but I believe the help should start within your family first."
Mr. Elcock, who does environmental consulting, says Governor Clinton inspires him. "The more I've seen him, the more I've been impressed by him. I like his health-care proposals. I like his record on education reform."
Provencher and Elcock, early recruits to Clinton's cause, now speak for nearly one-third of New Hampshire's Democratic voters who say they support the Arkansas governor in the nation's first presidential primary here on Feb. 18.
Clinton, combining Southern charisma with Democratic moderation, has charmed the media as well as the masses. Unless Clinton is derailed, experts say he has become the odds-on favorite to win New Hampshire, and perhaps become the next Democratic presidential nominee.
The governor's early gains could all be lost this week, however, depending upon how he handles charges that he had a 12-year, extramarital affair with a former Little Rock Television reporter. Clinton and his wife, Hillary, were scheduled to appear last night on the nation's top-rated television show, "60 Minutes," to talk about their marriage and the allegations of infidelity.
The charges against Clinton were leveled by Gennifer Flowers in a paid interview with the Star, a newspaper tabloid. They came just as some journalists were virtually anointing Clinton as the party's next nominee.
In the past few weeks here, Clinton has steadily gained support, overtaking the previous leader in the New Hampshire primary, former United States Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts. Mr. Tsongas, however, is well-organized here, and continues to breathe down Clinton's neck.
Other candidates are also intensifying their efforts. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska has begun saturating the television airwaves with commercials. Sen. Tom Harkin, although trailing badly, is fighting hard.
Clinton's rise to front-runner status happened with unexpected suddenness. Theories about his overnight popularity are offered by a number of analysts, including David Moore, a political scientist and pollster at the University of New Hampshire; Laurence Radway, professor emeritus of government at Dartmouth College and former chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party; Emmett Buell Jr., a political scientist and expert on presidential primaries at Denison University; Claibourne Darden Jr., a pollster ; and a number of political insiders who asked not to be named.
Dr. Radway, who has taken part in every presidential primary here since 1952, suggests that Clinton's ascent may be a replay of 1976, when Jimmy Carter came out of nowhere to win. Radway says Clinton, like Carter, may benefit by being a lone moderate in a field of mostly liberals. While the liberals divide their vote, moderates and conservatives rally to Clinton, giving him a plurality, Radway says.
Professor Buell says money may be a factor. Clinton "broke out of the pack" with his successful fund raising last month. Official figures on fund raising will not be released until Jan. 31; but news reports out of the various campaigns indicate that Clinton raised nearly as much money in December as all of his rivals combined. That gives Clinton the ability to pour money into television ads and organization.
Dr. Moore says favorable media coverage is the biggest difference between Clinton and his rivals. Clinton clearly seems favored by many writers. His aides like to quote columnists, such as Tom Fiedler of the Miami Herald, who wrote that "of all the Democrats, I find myself impressed most by the political philosophy of Bill Clinton."
Mr. Fiedler says Clinton does the best job of connecting children and families with government "in a way that brings purpose to both."
Buell adds one more thought that may be relevant. Clinton's opposition so far is surprisingly weak: "Tsongas is not charismatic enough. Kerrey's campaign just isn't working. Harkin is too narrow, strident, and gloomy. [Virginia Gov. L. Douglas] Wilder is long gone. And [former California Gov. Jerry] Brown is coming across as 'Governor Moonbeam.
Much of Clinton's favorable press could vanish instantly, however, if Ms. Flowers's allegations prove factual. Clinton says the charges "are not true."
So far, the Star's stories have done little to chill enthusiasm for the governor here, even if the weather sometimes does. On this night, although Provencher, Elcock, and hundreds of others waited for hours for Clinton at the Plymouth forum, he didn't show up. The weather was just too awful, aides said.