Why the early presidential primary debates are crucial

Candidate forums by both parties shape momentum just as New Hampshire

Three months before New Hampshire's crucial first-in-the-nation presidential primary, crunch time is starting.

On successive nights this week, the candidates from each major party took part in debates here - the two Democrats for the first time, the Republicans (minus Texas Gov. George W. Bush) for the second. New Hampshire voters are beginning to focus, and with each passing day, the polls become more meaningful as voters begin to firm up their choices.

Each candidate faces a distinct challenge: For those who trail, the obvious task is to persuade voters to come to their side. But even Governor Bush, the front-runner both for his own party's nomination and in general-election matchups with either Democrat, can't sit easy.

Especially with Arizona Sen. John McCain picking up points in polls of New Hampshire Republicans, Bush needs to redouble his efforts to shore up support, analysts say. Former Sen. Bill Bradley of New Jersey, who has surged slightly ahead of Vice President Al Gore in polls of Democrats here, must do the same.

"The most difficult challenge in any campaign - and George W. Bush is finding this, too - is when you race up in the polls, you have to convert those voters who are soft supporters to hard," says Dick Bennett, an independent pollster based in Manchester, N.H. "You have to give them fairly specific reasons to vote for you and stick with you."

In the Democratic debate Wednesday night, both Vice President Gore and Senator Bradley stuck to the issues and steered clear of any personal attacks on each other (though Gore did make a pointed, negative comment about his own boss, President Clinton, early on).

Bradley and Gore dueled over the cost of Bradley's proposed health-care reform and the merits of school vouchers, but overall, came across as more politically similar than different. When Bradley was offered the opportunity to comment on the controversial fund-raising practices of the Clinton-Gore campaign four years ago, he didn't go into details.

Gore also didn't bring up his recent line of attack against Bradley, that the ex-senator was a less-than-loyal party member because he left the Senate, then admitted he contemplated running for president as an independent. Lynn Vavreck, a political scientist at Dartmouth College here, says that was a wise decision. "People here like Bradley - there was no point in going after him," says Ms. Vavreck.

She believes Gore faced higher expectations going into the debate, because he's the sitting vice president and "heir apparent" of the Clinton presidency. But in the end, she says, he tried too hard to connect with the people in the hall by playing master of ceremonies before the broadcast began, then asking chatty questions and smiling a lot during the town hall meeting.

Bradley succeeded, she says, by simply being his own low-key self and explaining his positions, some of which have been a shade to the left of Gore. But Gore "overconnected," she says, "and that got in the way of people seeing the real Gore."

Ironically, the real Gore seemed to shine through after the lights went out and Bradley had left. He and his wife, Tipper, stayed in the meeting hall and chatted informally with a group of Dartmouth students about the environment, voter participation, and the state of global population.

For the Republicans, who debated last night, the dynamic was different. The party front-runner, George W. Bush, was conspicuous by his absence (though, at press time, before the debate, he was expected to appear for five minutes by video), and the task for the other Republican candidates was to emerge as the obvious No. 2 to Mr. Bush - with the hope of leaping to No. 1.

Bush has taken some recent heat for appearing in New Hampshire less than the other candidates have. Voters here pride themselves on making personal contact with candidates. They also like their reputation as contrarians, and if Bush appears to take his status for granted, they might look more seriously at other candidates.

Recently, Senator McCain benefited from that second-look factor, showing solid gains. A poll released Oct. 27 showed Bush at 44 percent and McCain at 26 percent, a 15-point rise over the past two months for the Arizona senator. Bush advisers worry about the surge, and say Bush will be spending more time in the state.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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