New Hampshire: Crucible Of Presidential Politics

SHOWDOWN time has arrived in New Hampshire - and two prominent candidates have the most to lose.

President Bush, still well ahead in Republican polls, hopes to avoid embarrassment at the hands of Patrick Buchanan, his conservative challenger. Mr. Buchanan wants enough votes to humiliate Mr. Bush, and eventually drive him from the race.

Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, once expected to win the Democratic contest, is striving to salvage his sinking campaign as former Sen. Paul Tsongas grows stronger day by day. Unless Governor Clinton can ease pervasive doubts about his character, his once-promising presidential effort could collapse.

With just four days left before voters go to the polls, New Hampshire again stands poised to serve its quadrennial role of kingmaker in American politics. Though New Hampshire has only one-half of 1 percent of the nation's voters, it carries more clout in the presidential primary process than even mega-states like California or New York.

All the candidates here know this state's history: Starting with Dwight Eisenhower in 1952, no one has ever been elected to the White House without first winning his party's presidential primary in New Hampshire.

The state has salvaged the slumping candidacies of several famous presidential candidates, such as Mr. Bush (1988), Ronald Reagan (1980), and Jimmy Carter (1980). It has also crushed the political hopes of others, such as Lyndon Johnson (1968), Edward Kennedy (1980), Morris Udall (1976), and Nelson Rockefeller (1968).

Bush's campaign strategists know that even a numerical victory here can become a loss. In 1968, President Johnson outpaced liberal antiwar challenger Eugene McCarthy by 4,000 votes. But the margin was so small that Johnson, downcast, dropped out of the race. That's the scenario Buchanan now strives for against Bush.

While the news media focus here will be on Bush and Clinton, several candidates could score important breakthroughs in Tuesday's vote.

At the top of that list stands Mr. Tsongas from next-door Massachusetts. Once written off by his rivals as a nonthreatening regional candidate, Tsongas has moved ahead inch by inch.

Hard work, careful organizing, and a quiet, persuasive tone have gradually won him grudging support among his skeptical New England neighbors. The 'stealth' candidate

As a leading Democrat here puts it: "From the beginning, we've said that Tsongas is the 'stealth' candidate of this campaign. The others have patronized him, praising his ideas. Now they are faced with the problem: How do they take back all those 'atta-boys' they gave him during the campaign?"

Tsongas has steadily gained as Clinton slips. Clinton went on ABC-TV's "Nightline" show late Wednesday night in an effort to defuse the latest rash of negative publicity over his efforts during the Vietnam War to avoid the draft.

In the late 1960s, Clinton eventually relinquished a questionable deferment to make himself available for the draft. But at the time he wrote to a military officer that the draft was "illegitimate" and that he gave up his deferment "to maintain my political viability within the system." Clinton told the ABC audience that even then, he was planning a political career.

Another potentially major benefactor from Tuesday's vote could be Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York. Enthusiasm is building for Mr. Cuomo to join the fray.

If Clinton loses badly, Cuomo may be sorely tempted.

The governor, basking in the renewed interest, told an enthusiastic crowd of students Wednesday night at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government: "In my own state, they're saying lousy things about me. If they're saying nice things [in New Hampshire], I'll just encourage them."

TV spots urging voters in New Hampshire to write in Cuomo's name on Tuesday's ballot went on the air last night on a Manchester station. The Cuomo write-in effort is being organized and funded by volunteers.

If Cuomo, or any other Democrat, enters, Tsongas says he's ready:

"When it was tough, they weren't there. They looked at the 91 percent [Bush approval rating after the Gulf war] and they went under the table," he says. "I would love to run against somebody like that." Hoping to catch up

Also hoping for a breakthrough Tuesday will be three major Democratic candidates who have lagged far behind - Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, and former Gov. Jerry Brown of California.

They have watched Clinton's poll numbers take a toboggan ride downhill, skidding from nearly 40 percent in New Hampshire Feb. 4-6 to 22 percent Feb. 9-11, according to the CNN/USA Today/Gallup tracking survey.

Finally, there is Buchanan, the Republican challenger. The public debate has already begun over what vote he needs to claim a victory and humble the president. Is it 25 percent, as his press office says? Is it 41.9 percent, as Senator McCarthy got against Johnson in 1968? Or does Buchanan have to win a majority of the votes in the Republican primary, as Bush claims?

"It will be up to the press to make that call," says a Buchanan aide, who adds: "We think 30 percent would be an incredible accomplishment against a sitting president."

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