THEY'RE OFF - a stampede of hopeful, high-profile Republicans charging toward an elusive prize that looks suddenly winnable, the White House, in 1996.
The next presidential campaign sprang to life full-blown here - one year before the first primary - at a jam-packed $100-a-plate fund-raiser where 2,200 guests saw nine GOP wannabes try out their lines.
``This isn't spring training. It's `Gentlemen and lady, start your engines,' '' said Rep. Robert Dornan of California, one of the nine.
Keenest interest surrounds Sen. Bob Dole, the GOP Lion King and front-runner. If others, like Sen. Phil Gramm, are to be contenders, Senator Dole must be dethroned.
The early start had longtime observers shaking their heads. But it may be inevitable. The primary calendar in '96 is changing, with key contests packed into a tight, five-week period between New Hampshire (Feb. 20) and California (March 26).
The bunching of primaries requires that candidates have a running start and an unprecedented war chest for media advertising. They will not be able to raise funds between primaries that stretch from February to June as in the past. Several significant possible candidates have already quailed at the prospect.
Equally important in prodding candidates toward an early start is that Republicans seem quite convinced President Clinton can be defeated.
While candidates will be forced to spend much of next year raising cash for TV spots and other expenses, New Hampshirites pooh-pooh the idea that TV has replaced pressing the flesh in their corner of the world. ``In 1988 it was [then Vice President] Bush's organization that beat Senator Dole, not media ads,'' says Steve Edwards, Gov. Steve Merrill's chief of staff. Sen. Judd Gregg agrees: ``Organization is always more important than media buys in New Hampshire.''
While social issues like abortion and illegal immigration were high priorities for some candidates, local politicos caution that economic issues most concern voters here. ``New Hampshire will vote taxes and spending, not social issues. They want responsible government,'' says Joel Maiola, Senator Gregg's chief of staff.
But not all the candidates agree. It was clear from the speechifying that issues like abortion still have the potential to open a hole in the GOP line that Mr. Clinton could drive through to victory.
The GOP line-up as of now:
Bob Dole. The GOP Senate majority leader is clearly the front-runner, both in the polls and in the reception he is getting across the state. His campaign claims 20,000 people have signed on or contributed to this year's effort. (About 170,000 people will vote in the GOP primary.) Gregg has accompanied him around the state, although he has not yet endorsed a candidate.
Phil Gramm. The Texas lawmaker has the endorsement of New Hampshire's senior senator, Bob Smith, but is considered somewhat behind Dole in organization. His substantial campaign funds and conservative credentials make him formidable.
Lamar Alexander. The former governor of Tennessee and federal education secretary paints himself as a Washington outsider. He has quietly built a strong organization in New Hampshire and other states.
Pat Buchanan. The memory of his 1992 challenge to President Bush remains strong here, but many observers feel his 37 percent showing then was more anti-Bush than pro-Buchanan. He appears to have about a 10 percent base. He sounds a strong isolationist and economic-nationalist theme against ``world government,'' the North American Free Trade Agreement, the World Trade Organization, and the financial rescue plan for Mexico. He insists the party's platform and ticket will oppose abortion.
Arlen Specter. The Pennsylvania senator, who calls himself ``an economic-fiscal conservative and a social libertarian,'' wants the anti-abortion plank removed from the GOP platform. He cites polls showing 71 percent of GOP voters nationally and 69 percent in New Hampshire are for abortion-rights.
Sen. Richard Lugar. The former mayor of Indianapolis, Ind., criticizes Clinton for having ``no game plan for using the American advantage'' in world affairs: especially in controlling the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Robert Dornan. The fiery California conservative says he is ``deadly serious'' about the race. He claims special status as the only candidate from the House of Representatives, ``the people's house.''
Lynn Martin. A former congresswoman from Illinois and Bush's labor secretary, she has also staked out an abortion-rights position.
Alan Keyes. President Reagan's ambassador to the UN Economic and Social Council and a rare black Republican, he demands the GOP maintain a strong anti-abortion position, which appears to be his main issue.
While it is still too early for polls to mean much, Dole appears to be far out front. In a John Zogby Group poll for the New York Post and New York's Fox-TV5, 45 percent of those polled favored the Senate majority leader; 10 percent supported Senator Gramm and Mr. Buchanan; 9 percent were for Massachusetts Gov. William Weld; 3 percent favored Mr. Alexander; and California Gov. Pete Wilson, Senator Specter, and Dornan all got 1 percent.
Governors Weld and Wilson and former Gen. Colin Powell were question marks hanging over the fundraiser here. Weld in particular has a particular advantage as a fellow New Englander. A draft-Powell movement is distributing flyers.
But anyone wanting to capture the nomination must move now, observers say. ``You can't wait.... You must decide by mid-April,'' says Tom Rath, an Alexander strategist.