Bush Gets Warning, Democrats Battle On
New Hampshire primary outcome puts president on notice: Voters expect no less from him than an economic turnaround
MERRIMACK, N.H. — 'READ our lips. We want economic change."
The voters' powerful message out of New Hampshire rattled the White House this week and promised that George Bush will have a difficult fight all the way to November to defend his presidency.
Economic distress has supplanted defense and foreign policy as America's top issue, and President Bush finds himself caught in a political sandwich as he tries to deal with it. He is being blasted by conservative Patrick Buchanan on his right and by Democrats on his left.
"This is serious trouble," warns William Bennett, former drug policy adviser in the Bush White House.
Mr. Buchanan, who skewered President Bush for weeks with hundreds of TV and radio ads in New Hampshire, successfully mobilized deep-seated voter anger about this region's economic recession. His huge protest vote, 40 percent, shocked many Republicans.
On the Democratic side, voters rallied around the two candidates with the strongest economic messages: former United States Sen. Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts, who finished first, and Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas, who was close behind.
Even Democrats, amid their own election excitement, took note of the Bush-Buchanan fray. Democratic candidate Bob Kerrey, who finished third, noted: "Pat Buchanan may have bloodied [Bush's] nose, but we're going to knock him out in November."
Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia, calls Mr. Buchanan's vote "an embarrassment, if not a humiliation, for Bush. It's a real kick in the pants."
Dr. Sabato says it was the recession as well as Bush's decision to break his 1988 election promise Read my lips, no new taxes which undermined the president. The New Hampshire vote was "a real lesson for politicians who abandon the principles they claim to believe in," Sabato says.
Stephen Hess, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, says he was "amazed" by Buchanan's strength. "It shows how flabby the president's organization is, and it shows that he's got a legitimate candidate, not just a talk show host, up against against him now." Buchanan was a host on CNN's "Crossfire" program before becoming a presidential candidate.
In the long run, Buchanan's vote indicates Bush could be vulnerable in the fall, Mr. Hess says. He explains: "These weren't people voting because they loved Pat Buchanan. They were [Republicans] voting because they were angry with George Bush."
Exit polls back up Hess's assessment. They shown that approximately 50 percent of the New Hampshirites supporting Buchanan were casting a protest vote. Of those, 23 percent said they would not back Bush in November.
The exit polls by news organizations also indicated that the final vote could easily have been worse for the White House.
Even among Republican voters, 91 percent said they hoped the election results would send Bush a warning that he must pay more attention to the economy.
The Republican results nearly overshadowed the huge, 36-candidate Democratic race, in which Mr. Tsongas defeated Governor Clinton.
Clinton, who once was far ahead in this race, was beaten down during the past month by allegations of marital infidelity, and by charges that for several months during the Vietnam War he tried to avoid the draft. Even so, in the closing days Clinton's strength began to return.
"New Hampshire tonight has made Bill Clinton the comeback candidate," he told supporters at an election-night rally here in Merrimack. "At least I've proved one thing: I can take a punch."
Political analyst William Schneider, however, says the election results leave Democrats with two top contenders, Tsongas and Clinton, who both face serious questions about their electability.
Clinton's problems were partly washed away here. But Sabato cautions that Democratic voters are probably more forgiving about Clinton's draft problems than swing voters will be in November.
Tsongas has other electability problems. In the mid-1980s, he overcame what doctors called a life-threatening form of cancer. Democrats worry this could become an issue in November.
Also, some party activists, such as Terry Michael, a former official with the Democratic National Committee, are concerned that Tsongas lacks sufficient communications skills. Tsongas himself makes jokes about his lack of charisma.
The situation leaves some party leaders, such as Senate majority leader George Mitchell and House Speaker Thomas Foley, uncomfortable as they look toward November.
Even before the voting booths closed here, they were calling for new entries into the nominating race.
Potential candidates include Sen. Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Gov. Mario Cuomo of New York, Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri, and Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee.
Yet it's unlikely they will enter the fray. An unauthorized write-in campaign for Cuomo in New Hampshire to fell far short of its 15 percent goal. And the deadline for getting into most primaries soon expires.
Both Republicans and Democrats now brace for a rapid round of primaries and caucuses in the next three weeks. These could be decisive.
Bush forces are building what they call a "firewall" against Buchanan in the South Carolina primary.
Democrats now focus on Maine, Georgia, and South Dakota, among other states.