New Hampshire Will Set the Pace

NEXT Tuesday evening, expect a lot of spinning on TV, and not just on Olympic skating rinks. No, the "spinning" we have in mind will take place in New Hampshire campaign headquarters and television studios as presidential candidates and their advisers try to put their own twist on the results of 1992's first primary election.

The "spin doctors" with the easiest task will probably be those of former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas. If, as polls suggest, Mr. Tsongas achieves a come-from-behind victory in the Democratic primary or finishes a strong second, his handlers will have a field day "interpreting" the result.

The hardest spin job may be that facing the camp of Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. To do well Tuesday, Mr. Clinton not only must win, but he must exceed "expectations." Any other outcome, and the putative front-runner - whose campaign has recently been thrown off stride by rumors about Clinton's personal life - will be scrambling to explain why it's OK that he finds himself back in a tight race.

If Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa, Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, and former California Gov. Jerry Brown finish as far back as polls project, they will have to be whirling dervishes to salvage any good news from the contest.

In the GOP race, the challenge to President Bush by right-wing journalist Pat Buchanan is forcing the president to campaign more seriously than he had planned. Bush is in trouble if many New Hampshire Republicans spurn him for a political upstart.

Every four years the press treats the New Hampshire primary as a major political event, and every four years it asks, Why? The traditional reasons for according the voters of this small, insular state so much clout is that, besides voting first, New Hampshire citizens take their responsibility seriously.

Those reasons are still valid, but there's also another reason to treat the New Hampshire results as somewhat representative for the nation. Observers point out that even in New Hampshire, one of the last redoubts for "retail politics," voters today form their impressions of candidates more from TV - coverage and ads - than from the traditional press-the-flesh encounters. Media politics is homogenizing Americans' political sensibilities.

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