GOP's Granite-State Gantlet

Republican presidential candidates hit the New Hampshire campaign trail earlier than ever

It's a sunny but windy May afternoon in Nashua, N.H., a city of about 80,000 just across the border from Massachusetts.

The city's Republicans have gathered at the Sheraton Tara Hotel to eat London broil, give awards to local workers, and listen to three presidential candidates: Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, and Rep. Robert Dornan of California.

It's another typical stop in an unusually early campaign - so early that no one's sure the public is even paying attention. Former New Hampshire Gov. Hugh Gregg (R), who's written two books on the state's primary and is the father of Sen. Judd Gregg (R), says the 1996 race for the GOP nomination is off to the earliest start he's ever seen.

He's not the only one: Others here say the presidential hopefuls have a long way to go to firm up the support they'll need to do well in the Granite State and get an advantage in the compressed primary season next February and March.

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George Kurzon is a retired doctor from Peterborough who's a member of the Committee for Peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina. At a time when most candidates are focused on domestic policy, he wants someone to talk about foreign policy - especially the "genocide" in Bosnia. "I would send a State Department representative to [Serbian President Slobodan] Milosevic and tell him we want to see the war ended, and that we are prepared to use whatever force is necessary to end it."

Mr. Kurzon says the United States shouldn't stay in NATO if the Europeans aren't going to do anything about Bosnia, and he wants the US to end the arms embargo against that country's government.

"Except for [Kansas Sen. Bob] Dole, no one has said anything about it," he says, so Senator Dole would get his vote today.

Republican Hopefuls Jump Start Primary

Another doctor, Jeff Davis of Sharon, says he's a liberal Democrat for Dole. He says he believes the country's problems can't be solved by government, and he's upset with US foreign policy and with Secretary of State Warren Christopher. "Dole's the only candidate who has stood up and said that what's happening in Bosnia is wrong."

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The New Hampshire primary is the anomaly of American politics. Here, away from the corridors of power in Washington, the bright lights and high finance of New York, and the celebrity of vote-rich Los Angeles, in a state with as many US representatives as senators and only 1.1 million people, men and women who want to be president of the United States meet the public one on one.

Here they call it "retail politics," the old-fashioned way of earning high office. Perhaps it's appropriate that one who wants to be the most powerful person on earth must first run the Granite State gantlet: coffee-klatches in private homes, meetings with high-school social-studies students, lunch with small-town Kiwanis clubs, and dinner after dinner after dinner. It's not just speechifying: The candidates must often respond to questions from an unpredictable public.

"This is much greater than a party exercise," says Republican Tom Rath, a longtime New Hampshire political strategist who is working this year for former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander's campaign. "This is the most important political act of the people of New Hampshire. People here really believe it's important, and vote in big numbers." Some would say that a New Hampshirite's primary vote is more important than his or her presidential vote.

About 170,000 Republicans will vote next February.

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Doris MacIntyre (R) is a freshman in the New Hampshire House of Representatives from Merrimack. She hasn't chosen a candidate yet.

"I would like a candidate I can trust, one who's a good leader on foreign affairs; who's strong, tough, and promises to lower taxes." Although she is pro-life "with exceptions," she doesn't believe that social issues should be part of the political game. "I don't know how they got there, and I don't know why they're there. And I think that they are destroying the Republican Party.... I'm a middle-of-the-road individual and I would like to see middle-of-the-road individuals [running for office]."

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During the primary season, it's almost impossible to turn around here without bumping into a presidential candidate. But at any time of year one is likely to encounter a state legislator.

With 400 members, New Hampshire's House of Representatives is the nation's largest. While unwieldy, it highlights one facet of New England democracy: intimate town meetings, close access to elected officials, and lively concern with public affairs. The interested citizen can hardly help running into a contender.

"We see all the candidates," says Bill Benson, a social-studies teacher at Manchester's Memorial High School, after Mr. Alexander has fielded questions from Mr. Benson's class. "In the past we've had [President] Clinton, [Vice President Al] Gore, even Lyndon LaRouche. We've had 'em all."

"Your message has to be what you're going to do," says Joel Maiola, Senator Gregg's chief of staff. "People are excited over the Republican control of Congress. They want to know how you will further that."

"The Republican Party is more unified than ever, especially in New Hampshire," Mr. Maiola says. "New Hampshire will vote on taxes and spending, not social issues. They want responsible government. They were for responsible government before it was cool."

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Paul Taylor (R) of Nashua is another freshman state representative. He says he's got a preference, but isn't making it public "until a lot nearer the election.

"I'm looking for somebody who will deal in specifics as far as reduction of the debt." Social Security and Medicare must be addressed, he says. "If you don't touch those ... you're not serious about reducing the deficit.... I don't want to pass along a legacy to my grandchildren of a second-rate country whose profits go overseas when we produce anything."

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Candidates chase endorsements the way hounds chase a fox: A senator or governor on a candidate's side can bring in badly needed money and, perhaps more important in New Hampshire, organization.

So far, Senator Gregg has declared for Dole, while Sen. Bob Smith (R) is co-chairing Texas Sen. Phil Gramm's campaign. Congressman William Zeliff (R) is a Dole supporter, while colleague Charles Bass (R) is undecided.

Many of the campaign coordinators are state legislators. But GOP Gov. Stephen Merrill has made no endorsement, leaving him maximum impact later on and the flexibility to change as the campaign evolves.

Helping the right candidate has catapulted more than one New Hampshire governor to the big time. Gov. Sherman Adams (R) became President Eisenhower's chief of staff after the 1952 elections, while Gov. John Sununu (R) was President Bush's chief of staff after 1988. Ironically, both left their positions under a cloud: Mr. Adams for accepting gifts from a businessman for whom he had made inquiries with federal agencies; Mr. Sununu for questionable use of government aircraft and an allegedly abrasive management style.

Just about everybody here agrees that Mr. Dole is the clear front-runner. Statewide surveys show him with support in the 40 percent range; he has heavyweight endorsements and claims 20,000 volunteers and supporters.

A New York Post/Zogby Group International poll released June 8 shows Dole with 49.5 percent support among New Hampshire residents surveyed, followed by commentator Pat Buchanan with 8.2 percent; Senator Gramm, 5.5 percent; Alexander, 4.1 percent; California Gov. Pete Wilson, 2.4 percent; Senator Specter 1.5 percent; Senator Lugar and commentator Alan Keyes, less than 1 percent; and Congressman Dornan, 0 percent. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus 4 percent.

Governor Merrill's chief of staff, Steve Edwards, claims that while Gramm has the state's senior senator in his camp, he has stumbled over his support for earlier primaries in Arizona and Delaware, which New Hampshirites believe would take away some of the luster of their own. As some explain it, the Gramm campaign allegedly thinks it can't win in New Hampshire, but can elsewhere and wants a victory in another state to cancel the effect of a loss here.

State GOP chairman John Stabile says that "as far as the primary is concerned, we are maniacal that New Hampshire will be first and that it will be seven days before anyone else." Governor Merrill has even threatened candidates who do not support these demands. Senator Dole says the state should change its motto from "Live Free or Die" to "Vote First or Die."

Besides its small size and location far from the mainstream of national political life, New Hampshire is unrepresentative of the country at large in several other ways. It has more registered Republicans than Democrats; state GOP officials like to claim that it's the "most Republican state in the country" right now. In this regard, the contrast with neighboring Massachusetts, one of the most Democratic states in the union, could not be more stark. The governor, both senators, and both congressmen wear the GOP label. In the General Court, or legislature, 18 of 24 senators and 284 of the 400 representatives are Republicans. New Hampshire has no income tax, no statewide sales tax, and the highest residential property taxes in the country.

Yet the state's record of picking the next president is unequaled. From 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower upset Sen. Robert Taft in the GOP primary, until 1992, no one has been elected president without winning New Hampshire first. The only exception: Bill Clinton, who came in second to former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas in the Democratic primary during the last go-round.

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Alderman Brian McCarthy (R) represents Nashua's Ward 5 on the city council. He's working for the Gramm campaign. "He best represents positions that I take on a lot of issues," Mr. McCarthy says. He likes Gramm's stands "on constitutional rights, the size and role of government, and individual responsibility...."

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Historically, New Hampshire has been the shoals upon which front-runners have foundered by not doing as well as expected (Senator Dole, take note).

GOP Sen. Barry Goldwater's 1964 campaign got off to a rocky start from which it never recovered when he lost the New Hampshire primary to Henry Cabot Lodge. President Lyndon Johnson's poor showing in the Democratic primary of 1968 helped lead him to withdraw from the race and made challenger Eugene McCarthy a serious Democratic contender. Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie, the Bob Dole of 1972, managed only 46 percent of the primary vote to George McGovern's 37 percent; it was the beginning for Senator McGovern and the beginning of the end for Senator Muskie. Former Vice President Walter Mondale (D) found himself in a battle with Sen. Gary Hart after New Hampshire in 1980. Mr. Tsongas of Massachusetts came from nowhere in 1992 to battle front-runner Bill Clinton for several months when he placed first in the Granite State.

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Fred and Carol Pauling hold no public office: He's an electrical engineer and she's a travel agent. Mr. Pauling says he hasn't made a firm choice of candidates, but he's leaning toward Dole.

"I like the idea of a flat tax, but that's not really the major thing. I definitely want someone who's conservative. I like what Congress is doing right now with the Contract With America.... I'd certainly like someone to continue on with that." He says that economic, not social issues, will be key.

Mrs. Pauling says unhesitatingly that she likes Dole and Senator Lugar. "They are honorable characters to my mind.... I think that Lugar is acceptable to Democrats, I just have that feeling...." She says she likes Congressman Dornan, but doesn't think he's electable.

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The atmosphere in New Hampshire couldn't be more different in 1996 than it was four years ago. Then, New England and the Northeast were in the midst of a deep recession that saw some of the region's major employers go out of business or begin a series of devastating layoffs. Every state legislature was struggling to cover deficits, and the bust in the real-estate market sent a wave of collapses, mergers, and acquisitions through the banking sector resulting in a credit crunch.

"The recession hit New England before it hit the rest of the country and lingered here longer," says Wayne Ayers, chief economist for the Bank of Boston. The result was the deep discontent that fueled Patrick Buchanan's 37 percent vote tally against President Bush.

Those days are long gone. Unemployment in New Hampshire "has fallen from 8.1 percent to 3.9 percent," says Mr. Edwards of the governor's office. Mr. Ayers says the state now leads the region in job growth; jobs are up almost 3 percent. "That's something of a surprise: Given the depths of the real-estate decline, no one would have expected it to come roaring back as early as it did." The costs of living and doing business in New Hampshire are lower than elsewhere in the region, giving the state an advantage, Ayers says.

But voters' optimism is uneasy at best. At least one survey shows that consumer confidence in New England is lower than elsewhere in the country. Ayers warns against reading too much into one monthly statistic, but says, "It does reflect the fact that while we have been in recovery in the last nine months or so, that has almost stalled out in new-job creation" in the region at large.

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Cosmetology instructor Rhona Wollenhaupt is from Hudson, outside Nashua: She has already met Gramm at a coffee, but hasn't yet decided who she will back. "I'll support someone who's pro-choice and for welfare reform; someone who's a good leader, who's going to make decisions and stick with them," she says.

But Ms. Wollenhaupt echoes what several others have said: "I think the campaign started too early. I think most people are just looking to see who they would support, but it's a little bit early still to make a decision."

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The New Hampshire primary is 246 days away.

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