What Was Missing?

NEW Hampshire's Republican primary - a three-way near-draw - has given us a tissue sample of this year's presidential race.

Most notable was what was missing: direct answers from the candidates about issues directly troubling voters, and an overall White House governance war game such as Ronald Reagan's campaign brought to its capture of Washington in 1980.

''They don't answer the question!'' voters complained as the state's contest wound down. ''They don't hear us.'' Such responses in surveys described a dissonance between the candidates' and the citizens' sense of reality.

Communication was one-way - from the politician. ''I want to be president because I want to be president,'' is how Richard Bennett, who conducts the New Hampshire Poll, sums up the message voters were hearing.

The voters wanted answers that responded to their economic insecurities: ''What about my children's education? What will I do about my parents? What do I do about having to put things back on the shelf at the grocery store because I can't pay for them?'' They wanted at least the assurance they were heard aright.

Winner Pat Buchanan had an agenda. He is isolationist, anticorporate America. He gets the anger vote and blue-collar vote that would have gone to a Ronald Reagan. Buchanan's surge was countered by a Dole camp barrage of ''persuasion calls'' into the last weekend. Of 200 voters called by the New Hampshire Poll on Saturday evening, fully 60 said they had gotten calls trashing either Buchanan or Lamar Alexander. In Iowa Bob Dole had effectively targeted Steve Forbes with such calls.

This year's New Hampshire primary was mostly a tactical affair. The state's primaries are often nasty, but this year the attacks started earlier than usual; the Forbes campaign began airing negative ads before Christmas and then built on what had been Alexander's theme of ''outsider.''

What the voters heard in New Hampshire will be carried to Delaware this weekend and to Arizona, the Dakotas, South Carolina, and Wyoming next week: Dole is saying ''It's my turn.'' His response is programmatic: ''We'll hold a hearing on it.'' Dole has the party establishment machine. But he is running as a veteran of this century's wars, not as a visionary for the next century.

Alexander and Buchanan cruelly taunt Dole as over the hill, in the way, idea-less. He must face down his rivals.

In Dole's shadow stands Richard Lugar, ''the thoughtful candidate.'' ''Outsider'' Alexander is this year's happy warrior. He's catching on with women and shows bits and ribbons of ideas. And can Forbes spend his way back into contention?

The last time the Republicans regained the White House from the Democrats was in 1980. Reagan had learned a lesson from his 1976 primary loss to Gerald Ford. By 1980 he was better prepared for a broad-front campaign. By this time in 1980 a brain trust was working on ideas, initiatives, a transition team, initial appointments, and a first- 100-day program. Reagan not only won against a fatigued Jimmy Carter, but also launched an administration with vigor.

This year's intellectual leadership and political leadership are out of whack on the Republican side. The GOP brain trust resides with Newt Gingrich in the House of Representatives. Gingrich has been a remarkable party leader and has the negatives to prove it. Gingrich's governing majority is at stake.

Candidate Reagan's age didn't hurt him. To win it all, Dole must do more than contrast ''experience'' with President Clinton's ''youth.'' Clinton will have had four years' experience and is showing himself to be a skillful pragmatist.

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