Why underdogs look to New Hampshire

George W. Bush has a big lead in Iowa, so some Republicans are turning

Last August, while Iowa basked in the national spotlight of its well-attended Republican straw poll, New Hampshirites quietly grumbled that they were losing their primacy in shaping the field of presidential candidates.

Not only did Iowa's straw poll lead to the early departure of some candidates from the race, but the state's nominating caucuses - the first real test of candidates of the 2000 race, to be held Jan. 24 - also looked to be an early shaper of the GOP field.

Now that calculation has changed, and New Hampshire - which holds its first-in-the-nation primary election Feb. 1 - is stealing a march on the Hawkeye State.

The reason: Arizona Sen. John McCain's decision to skip the Iowa caucuses and focus on winning New Hampshire, where he is currently in a dead heat with the GOP front-runner, Texas Gov. George W. Bush.

The expectations game plays into the diminishing of Iowa. Governor Bush is expected to come in first there, with publisher Steve Forbes in second place.

So the results in Iowa may "have no impact on New Hampshire," says Arthur Miller, a political analyst at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. "I think a number of people are thinking along those lines on the Republican side, and so already in a sense writing off Iowa."

For the two Democratic candidates, of course, Iowa remains a key battleground and its caucus results could sway New Hampshire Democratic voters. In Iowa, polls put Vice President Al Gore's percentage of likely caucus supporters in the 40s and former Sen. Bill Bradley in the 20s.

If Mr. Bradley can surge in the next few weeks and overtake Mr. Gore in Iowa, that would be a major upset heading into New Hampshire, where Gore and Bradley are running close. Bradley's challenge to Gore has faded a bit in the past few weeks, as the vice president has pounded the ex-senator over the cost of his proposed health-care plan.

Gore has also worked hard to recast his image, moving his campaign headquarters to Tennessee, changing his look, and becoming more available to voters in small settings. And he has the bulk of the Democratic establishment backing his campaign, which gives him access to political infrastructure that Bradley doesn't have.

In the larger scheme, the dynamics of both parties' nominating contest point up the continued importance of both New Hampshire and Iowa in presidential politics - even as Iowa's impact could be fading for the Republican field. With the exception of Senator McCain, who is skipping Iowa, candidates continue to visit both states early and often, and are spending millions on television, radio, and mailings.

Iowa and New Hampshire are two of the country's least typical states, with older than average populations and few minorities. Other states have long resented the inordinate influence those two small states have had in getting their issues heard - and in shaping the presidential field before any other voters get to make a selection.

And so in anticipation of the 2000 campaign, many states moved their primaries earlier, to increase their influence.

Before the 2000 campaign began in earnest, some analysts had predicted that New Hampshire and Iowa would play lesser roles this time around. But the daily log of political events in each state reveals that most candidates are taking nothing for granted and sticking to the New Hampshire-Iowa orthodoxy.

Bush is now planning regular visits to New Hampshire after laying low. He took part in his first presidential debate last week, held in Manchester, N.H., and got adequate reviews. The most important point, analysts say, is that he showed up and did not make any gaffes.

The Bush campaign has "picked up on the signals, that people don't feel they've met him and know him enough," says Steve Duprey, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. "They've worked hard to get him in various settings."

For the Democrats, Iowa and New Hampshire may be even more important than ever. If Gore can win both, he will be in strong position to take the nomination. Bradley is counting on two big states, New York and California, which have moved up their primaries, to be strong for him.

But after New Hampshire, the next primaries come so fast and furious, it may be difficult for the loser to regain momentum.

McCain's strategy is to skip Iowa, then contest the primaries in New Hampshire, South Carolina, Arizona, and Michigan. So far, he's doing well in New Hampshire and Arizona, his home state, but not in the other two. His campaign says he's trailing in South Carolina because the voters there don't know him yet, and that he plans to pick up the pace of his campaign there.

But, analysts say, McCain probably has to win New Hampshire to pose a serious threat to Bush the rest of the way. And even then, Bush can lose New Hampshire and still recover, given the vast resources he has amassed.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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