EVERY New Hampshire presidential primary is a big primary, to New Hampshirites as well as to the rest of us. That is so this year even though there is no great enthusiasm for the candidates.
New Hampshire, despite the Iowa caucuses that occur before it, is still the gateway for the American presidential election process: the first statewide direct vote for party nominees, narrowing the field to the front-runner and the few who can carry on a while longer.
"They think it is their duty to vote," says pollster Richard Bennett of New Hampshirites. Mr. Bennett is president of American Research Group Inc., based in Manchester, N.H. Some 115,000, or 50 percent to 60 percent of the state's 260,000 Republicans, are expected to turn out on Feb. 20, as well as 95,000, or 45 percent of New Hampshire's 210,000 Democrats. These third-of-a-million voters know full well the disproportionate impact their ballots will have on the nation's November outcome.
As January ended, on the Republican side Sen. Bob Dole had essentially the same 33 percent, or one-third of the GOP electoral base, in the social-moderate center, that he had in his 1988 run against George Bush. The nomination looked as if it was his to lose, which he conceivably could, should his leading challenger's surge carry forward.
Publisher Steve Forbes's one-fifth of the expected turnout, in Bennett's January survey, was largely built on advertising exposure. And like Pat Buchanan, in third place with one-tenth of the expected GOP vote, his support is primarily male. "Women find Forbes 'goofy' in his ideas and manner," says Bennett, who has conducted focus-group studies of the candidates. Forbes may be able to fund a campaign beyond New Hampshire out of his own pocket, but he has yet to acquire the personable manner required of a politician. Lamar Alexander, in single digits, could gain if the media fervor for Forbes makes Dole look vulnerable enough.
On the Democratic side, President Clinton's supporters are working to make a strong turnout for their unopposed standard-bearer.
The issue in New Hampshire is not a flat tax or balancing the federal budget, just as it was not the health-care system in the last election.
The issue is how to recover from the 1989-1990 recession, how to regain perceived losses in real estate values, how to restore security to jobs, how to create jobs with benefits.
It's the economy.
A flat tax - especially Forbes's "pure" version that would end the mortgage-interest deduction - is getting more attention than enthusiasm.
The Washington budget spectacle hardly helps the Republicans. What New Hampshirites want is someone more in touch with what is affecting their lives. They've lost confidence in the two parties' leaders' ability to hear them. The Republicans are in danger of misperceiving the nature of this year's contest. In analyzing communication along the lines of senders and receivers, politicians tend to be senders - imagining they're communicating because they hear the sound of their own voice.
"There's a good chance the voters will throw out the Republicans this fall,'' says Bennett. "[Republicans] think the last election's favorable results were in response to their programs, but it was really because they weren't Democrats."
Also, the departures of many Democrats in 1994, and the decisions of many Democrats not to run this year, may have had their origins in long-ago election cycles. Incumbents may lament a lack of civility in Washington today, but that may be one way to acknowledge that they just don't belong in today's government. And this is fair enough, because their reason for being in Washington, the wave that brought them in, has long since ebbed. Big freshman classes, for either party, set the stage for big losses later. Change attributed to ideological shifts (and to what else would we expect politicians to attribute it?) may be no more than time running out on yesterday's political leaders, themselves elected at a time of distaste for the opposition or the onset of its fatigue.
New Hampshire voters did show a surge of enthusiasm when Colin Powell was thinking of running, but now they face a more dutiful decision. And they appear unsettled in their views.
If it is Dole in November against Clinton, still the likely matchup, then Clinton will have the edge in the election as the incumbent.
But this is only a winter outlook on an election race yet to be run.