Neck and Neck in N.H., It's Bob Dole vs. Bob Dole

WITH 20 weeks to go before the nation's first presidential primary, the game plan among Republican candidates is pretty well defined: Everybody chase Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, Mr. Dole included.

"It's Dole vs. Dole," says political analyst William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "If Dole falters, there are lots of possibilities."

That point was clear after this week's debate among the 10 declared GOP candidates in this red-brick New England city. The evening presented the first opportunity to see all the current candidates together. Judging by their remarks, months of campaigning have done little to change Dole's stature as the obvious front-runner.

That could change, however, before the February New Hampshire primary. The next three weeks will be pivotal in the Senate, where Republicans will try to deliver on promises to balance the budget, reform Medicare and welfare, and cut taxes. Dole, as majority leader, is in the hot seat. If the Senate falters, he's vulnerable.

"There's pressure on the Senate, and Dole in particular, not to turn the Senate into the graveyard of the Contract With America," Mr. Schneider says, referring to the GOP's manifesto.

Other things could happen as well. Retired Gen. Colin Powell or House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R) of Georgia could enter the race. Or one of the declared pack could surge ahead, such as Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas or former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander.

Jim Courtovich, Mr. Gramm's New Hampshire state chairman, is banking on the latter. Dole's poll figures reflect his early name-recognition advantage. To counter that, Mr. Courtovich says, all Mr. Gramm needs is a good cold snap.

"You can gauge voter interest here by a thermometer," Courtovich says. "The colder it gets, the less people go outside. That's when they start to get interested."

AS the campaign begins in earnest, the Republican field includes four senators, one congressman, two millionaire businessmen, a former commentator, a former governor, and a former ambassador to the United Nations.

More a forum than a debate, the candidates took turns Wednesday night making prepared statements and answering a handful of questions. Each claimed a mantle of conservatism, each a role in the revolution. There were no rebuttals and few barbs.

Reading from notes, Dole delivered a careful attack against President Clinton, choosing to focus on his would-be opponent rather than look over his shoulder at his GOP rivals.

"The presidency ought to be a catalyst for change," Dole said, "but today it is a tremendous barrier."

Whether balancing the budget or reforming Medicare, "President Clinton stands in the way." Said the World War II veteran: "Many things have gone wrong in America, but another America is waiting. An America strong and hard and sure of mind."

The rest of the pack, meanwhile, focused on Dole. Speaking at a rally before the debate, Gramm signed a pledge to protect the $245 billion tax-cut package that Republicans wrote into their budget blueprint last summer. He challenged Dole, who has twice suggested that Congress may have to settle instead for a smaller or temporary tax, to sign as well.

"I don't remember anybody equivocating when we made all those promises" to balance the budget and cut taxes, he told a cheering crowd. "Now that it has come time to make the hard decisions, some are beginning to say, 'Maybe we can't live up to the commitment we made with a $245 billion tax cut.'"

Mr. Alexander, who arrived at the forum in his trademark lumberjack flannel before switching to a suit, played the outsider card. He said Republicans in Washington may mean well by their reform efforts, but they are simply replacing liberal federal mandates with conservative ones.

"Dole put out a Washington message. He put out a good message for the majority leader of the Senate," Alexander said after the debate. "But we're not picking the president of Washington, we're picking the president of the whole country.

Alexander isn't the only one claiming outsider status. Business magnates Steven Forbes and Morry Taylor offered experience in the world of commerce. Commentator Pat Buchanan, meanwhile, is challenging his Washington-based rivals over campaign finance reform. Before the debate, his proposal won support from the New Hampshire chapter of Ross Perot's United We Stand America.

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