BEN JACOBY, head of a small printing firm in downtown Nashua, sums up the prevailing mood in New Hampshire about America's economy.
"It's been going downhill since about 1988," says Mr. Jacoby, who has laid off one of his five employees at The Print Factory. ve heard no optimism from any place other than Washington."
Next week's presidential primary in New Hampshire marks the first major election of the post-cold-war era, and economic depression has supplanted anticommunism as the No. 1 issue. Voters here are spoiling to send a strong message to the nation's politicians.
President Bush, battling conservative Patrick Buchanan in New Hampshire's Republican primary, remains heavily favored to win his party's nomination. And most analysts still believe Mr. Bush will defeat the Democratic nominee in the November general election.
But judging by the somber mood of voters in New Hampshire, the president's success this year is no longer assured.
Across the country, a profound change has taken place during the past 12 months in the attitudes of voters, especially members of the middle class, according to political experts. Prolonged recession has created a foreboding that the American dream of broad-based prosperity might be slipping away.
Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination, observes that people are concerned that the United States could soon see "the first generation of Americans to do worse than their parents."
This sense of unease among Americans comes after 45 years of national sacrifice to halt communist expansion around the globe. In that period, the nation spent trillions of dollars for defense, lost more than 100,000 lives in wars, and ran up the largest national debt in the history of the world.
Although victorious, the US now finds itself with a monumental task of rebuilding at home. Bridges are crumbling, schools are failing, banks are collapsing, major industries like auto manufacturing are drowning in red ink, 35 million Americans have no health insurance, homelessness is rising, prisons are overcrowded, drug abuse continues at high rates, and urban blight and racial friction have tarnished the core of the nation's greatest cities.
America won the war for "all mankind," says Mr. Buchanan, "but we exhausted our resources" doing it. President Bush, an internationalist who is most comfortable dealing with world affairs, finds himself awkwardly positioned to deal with this new political reality. Both the right and left are unhappy with his policies.
Buchanan, who excoriates Bush every day with sharp-edged ads on New Hampshire TV, says it is time to "put America first" and bring the troops and the money home. Some Democrats echo that part of Buchanan's message, while also demanding more-active government to deal with industrial decline and runaway health costs.
New Hampshire voters, with the nation's first primary, are uniquely positioned to blaze a trail across this new political landscape. Robert Craig, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire (Durham), says voters seem ready for change, explaining: "People here are awakening to the fact that our standard of living has slipped. They are recognizing that it takes two wage earners to do what one did 20 or 30 years ago."
Laurence Radway, professor emeritus at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., says there have been periods of introspection like this before in America, particularly after World War II. He says today's attitudes relate not only to the end of the cold war, but also to economic hard times.
Linda Maddox, a professor of business and marketing at George Washington University, says something more is involved as well.
During the past 30 years, millions of blue-collar workers in textiles, footwear, electronics, steel mills, and auto factories lost their jobs. These formerly well-paid workers often had to take minimum-wage jobs. Millions of wives entered the work force to compensate for their husbands' lower incomes.
Those middle Americans, who long have felt neglected by Washington, now are being joined on the unemployment lines by people from the professional and administrative ranks of banking, insurance, finance, and other white-collar businesses. "It is now hitting the upper classes," Dr. Maddox says. With economic distress spreading to all parts of society, anger with politicians is growing.
Alfred Eckes Jr., a history professor at Ohio University and former chairman of the US International Trade Commission, makes a similar point. He observes that the emphasis by government and industry on international trade competition is putting a financial squeeze on all segments of working America.
The goal of US trade policy seems admirable: to get the highest possible level of efficiency in businesses around the world. But as the squeeze tightens, American workers find themselves in desperate economic competition with low-wage nations like Mexico and China. Middle-class incomes are threatened.
Here in New Hampshire, presidential candidates put this pain into words: "Go down to the unemployment office," Buchanan says. "It's devastating."
Democratic candidate Tom Harkin demands: "Quit exporting our jobs out of this country."
That's the message many voters hope Washington hears.