IN FOR THE KILL
THIS YEAR, THE PRESIDENTIAL SCREENING TEST IN NEW HAMPSHIRE HAS TAKEN ON A NEW URGENCY
Above the seawall at Hampton Beach on New Hampshire’s Atlantic coast, the landscape bore the scars of three years of economic devastation. “For Auction” signs studded empty shop windows gaping along the oceanfront drive. And the rusting skeleton of an abandoned construction site left a sinister gouge on once-prosperous Ashdown Avenue. Inside the Beach Cafe and Bakery where the morning regulars were warming themselves over coffee, muffins and political small talk, Kenneth Lessard, a 33year-old contractor, had just received another grim bulletin. Two weeks after the town auctioneer had sold off more than 50 foreclosed
properties in a single Saturday, his bank had notified him that, because of plummeting real estate values, it was calling his mortgage loans—despite the fact that he had never missed a payment. “The bank already owns half the property in town,” he said. “It’s just scary.”
For Lessard and an estimated 265,000 other voters preparing to vent their fears and frustrations in the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary next week, the recession has also transformed the political landscape. Four years after George Bush saved his foundering 1988 White House bid by jumping into an 18wheel Mack truck and honing his he-man image
in the Granite State, Lessard voiced regret that he had voted for him. But Lessard says that he now has more pressing matters on his mind than a candidate’s likability quotient. “We desperately need some positive economic answers,” he said. “That’s why this election is so important.” As Joseph Grandmaison, former chairman of the state Democratic party, put it: “In 1988, we were fat and sassy here, but now there’s real pain. This time around, people are far less inclined to accept pap from candidates.”
In a state where many cars sprout bumper stickers every fourth February that read “Centre of the Universe,” voters have traditionally prided themselves on the fact that no one has won the White House in 40
years without first winning their official primary approval. But this year, with an estimated nine million Americans out of work—and New Hampshire alone reeling from 68,000 lost jobs since 1989—that presidential screening test has taken on a new urgency. At a time when Bush’s popularity has plunged to a record low of 43 per cent, and when he faces an unanticipated challenge from conservative commentator Patrick Buchanan, the Feb. 18 vote is shaping up as the first referendum on his presidency—and on the sullen public mood. In the process, it could also provide the first indication of how seriously voters are heeding Buchanan’s call for the nation to turn inward and nurse its domestic woes with a dose of protectionist introspection.
Helping to boost New Hampshire into new prominence was Iowa Senator Thomas Harkin’s decision last summer to enter the race. By throwing his hat into the Oval Office ring, he effectively rendered this week’s Demo-
cratic caucuses in his state irrelevant in the presidential selection process. Not only is Harkin expected to score a handy win on his home turf, but that prospect has led his fellow candidates to shun Iowa. Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Harkin’s populist liberal message has failed to catch fire despite his folksy rounds of plant gates in the icy dawn and his television commercials claiming to be “the only real Democrat in the race.” A week before the vote, he remains tied with Gov. Edmund (Jerry) Brown—whose anti-Establishment message has similarly misfired—at the bottom of opinion polls. Said Grandmaison: “In recent years, Iowa framed the question for New Hampshire as to who the choice of candidates was between. This year, we’re on our own.”
But by buttonholing White House hopefuls in
the living rooms and roadside diners of the nation’s llth-smallest state, New Hampshirites relish their singular chance to practise what consumer advocate and write-in candidate Ralph Nader termed “old-fashioned retail politics.” On the morning of Feb. 19, when the race hurtles south to 14 state primaries from Maryland to Texas, which will vote on March 3 and 10, the campaign will become one fought largely over the airwaves in 30-second bites. Said Carolyn Gargasz-Hollis, a Manchester rental agent who slipped into a Buchanan news conference to size up Bush’s chief Republican challenger in the flesh: “Most people I know here are pretty serious about their vote. And we know we have an opportunity that other
states don’t have.”
But with the election season radically shortened by the campaign’s late start in the fall, New Hampshire has also inched closer to becoming a contest like many others. In Peterborough, a genteel backwater 30 km west of Manchester, Edward Hamblin, a retired engineer, lamented the fact that the Democrats had waited so long to mount a slate against Bush because they deemed him unbeatable in the heady aftermath of the Persian Gulf War. After routinely hosting candidates at his home four years ago, Hamblin has scarcely had a glimpse of any this year. “When they finally got it together, they had to bypass a lot of the small towns,” he said, “and, quite frankly, we’re feeling rather snubbed.”
State Democratic chairman Chris Spirou blamed the late start for the fact that as many as 30 per cent of voters still claim to be undecided, leaving next week’s outcome still largely a cliff-hanger. “When you’re accustomed to = watching a marathon and you
have a 100-yard sprint, it makes it a lot harder to call,” he said. “It’s still very volatile, very unpredictable.”
But as the national spotlight focuses on the state’s bucolic snow-crusted byways where Richard Nixon and Eugene McCarthy once stumped for support, some are making the most of their brief moment in its glare. Where else would a TV station with a total viewing audience of 100,000 dare issue the President of the United States an ultimatum, as Manchester’s WMUR did last month, insisting that he appear five on its nightly newscast or not on its airwaves at all?
In an antitax state, with no sales tax and the defiant motto “Live Free or Die” stamped on its licence plates, Buchanan has blanketed the airwaves with TV commercials showing Bush
making his dramatic 1988 campaign vow, “Read my lips: No new taxes!”—and then reminding voters how the President broke his pledge two years later. For many, that breach of faith accounts for the pervasive sense of betrayal in both parties. Said John Faust, a longtime Republican who trains teachers at the University of New Hampshire in Keene: “The man didn’t keep his word, and up here in New Hampshire, a man’s word is his bond.”
Nor can Bush count on evoking the glories of Desert Storm when he returns to the state this week to officially announce his taken-for-granted candidacy. In New Hampshire, a state of one million people, which leads the nation in bankruptcies and where unemployment has tripled to 7.5 per cent in four years, one of this year’s hottest-selling bumper stickers asks: “Saddam Hussein Still Has His Job—Do You?” For Vicky Berrios, a recently laid-off accountant from Grafton, in central New Hampshire, memories of the Persian Gulf conflict bring nothing but bitterness. When the war began, her army-reserve unit was shipped to Washington for four months, forcing her to drop out of college only weeks before graduation and obliging her husband to quit his job to babysit their two young sons. Now, out of work, she worries over how to repay her student loans. Said Berrios: “Since Desert Storm, everything has fallen apart.”
Another Republican who voted for Bush,
Berrios says that she is considering switching parties. Last week, she braved a blizzard to slip into the back row of Webster Hall at Hanover’s Dartmouth University to hear the economic pragmatism of former Massachusetts senator Paul Tsongas. So uncharismatic that his TV ads begin, “He’s no movie star,” Tsongas had not initially attracted her. “At first, I didn’t like him because of the way he sounds and looks,” she said. “But the more you listen, he seems to have thought things out.”
Analysts credit that widespread yearning for substance over slogans with finally galvanizing Bush into unveiling a belated package of mid-
dle-class tax breaks, home-buyer incentives and deductions for health insurance over recent weeks. Facing predictions that he could lose to an unnamed Democrat, Bush has suddenly thrown himself into what could be another fight for his political life with a diverse array of weapons—including one that bore a striking resemblance to the very election-year “gimmicks” that he denounced in his state of the union address two weeks ago. His 1992 budget contained a provision to build a $42-million annex onto the federal building in the state capital, Concord.
As well as gauging voter response to his economic and health-care proposals, the primary also offers an opportunity for another exercise in political pulse-taking—a chance to measure the public’s tolerance of candidates’ private sexual antics. Four years after the White House dreams of former Colorado senator Gary Hart ran aground following revelations of his dalliance with a sometime model named Donna Rice aboard the yacht Monkey Business, another moderate Democratic frontrunner has found himself gambling on New Hampshire voters’ moral indulgence: Arkansas Gov. William (Bill) Clinton. But last week, as onetime lounge singer Gennifer Flowers expanded on her three-week-old allegations of a steamy longtime affair with Clinton, the primary also shaped up as a verdict on his uncertain political future.
After doggedly continuing his campaign through a sex scandal that risked turning his candidacy into a national joke, Clinton suddenly lost his front-runner status to Tsongas in a new WMUR poll released at week’s end. As questions about his credibility mounted, the boyish-looking 45-year-old governor slipped 11 points to trail Tsongas, 28 to 19 per cent. Still, at a rally in Portsmouth, real estate agent Joan Scigliano seemed to reflect the view of many voters across the state when she professed that the sexual allegations had never prompted her to waver in her support of Clinton. “I think a lot of things like that go on in the political world,” she said. “But it doesn’t have any bearing on whether he could be a good president.” In Manchester, attorney Paul Gagnon seconded that view. “I think people are sick of screening presidential candidates on their bedroom activities,” he said. “Then the only people you’ll get are these clerical types—and we don’t want them running the country.”
Despite such mixed soundings, some analysts predicted that Clinton could lock up the Democratic nomination over the next month. Neither Tsongas nor any of Clinton’s other opponents possess his regional base or his $5.9-million campaign chest to fuel a leap from New Hampshire to the costly southern primaries. But last week, as he faced another televised instalment of Flowers’s erotic allegations, complete with the titillating claim that he had “wonderful lips” and that his lovemaking skills rated nine on a scale of 10, key party officials made no secret of their fears that Clinton’s prospects for beating Bush in the November election had suffered irreparable damage. And the White House gleefully confided plans for a presidential campaign trip to Arkansas, where Bush would promote family values.
Then, in an even more damaging assault on Clinton’s credibility, The Wall Street Journal raised questions about whether he had been entirely truthful with an Arkansas draft board in 1969 when he allegedly attempted to delay being called to serve in Vietnam. Last week, his voice a weary rasp as he battled the flu,
Clinton described the story as an old one that
had “been recycled against me by my opponents ever since 1978.” But two of his rivals, Harkin and Nebraska Senator Robert Kerrey, both Vietnam veterans and both flagging in the New Hampshire polls, seized on the controversy.
In an apparent attempt to ignite his lacklustre third-place campaign, after shaking up his
staff and switching slogans, Kerrey, a decorated former Navy Seal who lost part of his right leg below the knee in Vietnam, pointedly expressed “some doubt” about Clinton’s version of events. As Larry Sabato, a political science professor at Charlottesville’s University of Virginia, noted, those new questions about Clinton’s character leave him more “weighted down with baggage.” In anticipation of Clinton’s fading electability, some Democratic party officials last week began discreetly canvassing other potential stand-ins, including House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt and senators Lloyd Bentsen of Texas, Albert Gore of Tennessee and John Gay) Rockefeller of West Virginia. All publicly denied having any interest. But one name recurring on the list of alternatives presented a typically cryptic response—New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, better known as Hamlet on the Hudson.
A month after wistfully declining to run for president because of an ongoing wrangle with New York Republicans over his state budget, and not incidentally missing the New Hampshire primary filing deadline, Cuomo may now find a place on the ballot after all. A group of Chicago-based supporters has mounted a Draft Cuomo campaign which, two weeks ago, opened a $l,060-a-month office
above a luggage shop on Concord’s Main Street. Mailing out 100,000 postcards instructing New Hampshire Democrats on how to write in Cuomo’s name on their ballots, organizers have already received an estimated $70,000 in contributions from a newspaper ad proclaiming: “It’s Not Too Late!” According to executive director Barry Newman, a Chicago lawyer, Cuomo has done nothing to stop their efforts. He added: “On the contrary, he has been encouraging in his own way.” In fact, Cuomo’s biographer, Robert McElvaine, a Mississippi history professor, said that the intensely introspective Roman Catholic governor would “love to be drafted,” but that he would need a flood of votes to help him “overcome the sin of pride.” With only days to go before the primary, that could prove a tall order, even in a state where, in 1964, a write-in campaign for Henry Cabot Lodge, then
the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, swept to an upset victory. Still, in this volatile winter of New Hampshire’s discontent, when obvious weaknesses dog almost every other candidacy, analysts agree that stranger things could happen.
MARCI McDONALD in Manchester
RALPH NADER’S LATEST RAID
At South Meadow High School in Peterborough, a Republican bastion in southwest New Hampshire, a gigantic banner trumpeting the candidate’s name hung tenuously from the stage. His supporters lined the halls, passing out buttons and leaflets touting his record. As more than 500 people streamed into the gymnasium one frigid night last week, the rally resembled scores of others taking place in the final days before the first U.S. presidential primary, on Feb. 18. But the name of the gangly, rumpled contender they had come to hear will not appear preprinted on any ballot, and he has already declared that he does not want the job. For Ralph Nader, the 57-year-old Washington-based consumer activist, the New Hampshire campaign is not a quest for elected office but a call for frustrated voters to demand more of a voice in their government.
Billing himself as the “none-of-theabove candidate,” Nader has mounted the ultimate grassroots protest campaign, inviting a disgruntled electorate to voice its anger at being shut out of government by big corporate interests that he says grease the financial wheels of what he calls “business-as-usual” politics. He spends his weekends stumping the state, urging vot-
ers to write in his name at the bottom of their ballots. And last week in Peterborough, in an hour-long civics lesson sprinkled with aphorisms of outrage, he described “a new tool kit for democracy” by which voters could exercise legal rights they already possessed in such areas as public broadcasting, public lands, taxpayer watchdog groups to oversee public utilities and public financing of election campaigns. Asked Nader: “How can you continue to bewail the state of our country without roaring back at the ballot box?”
Judging from the rapt crowds, Nader’s challenge has touched a nerve. Ever since his supporters arrived in New Hampshire in October, nearly 1,000 volunteers have signed on to promote what he calls his “citizens’ power agenda.” Contributions totalling nearly $80,000 have poured into his four offices, and he has regularly outdrawn the five official
Democratic contenders in the same halls. But much of his applause has come from alienated Republicans. His most notable convert to date: Gail Barba, a 42-year-old cross-country ski instructor and former local chairman of the George Bush-Dan Quayle campaign in Dixville Notch, the northern hamlet whose 29 voters have traditionally cast their ballots at midnight, providing the first hint of the primary results. After Nader’s visit two weeks ago, Barba announced that she was resigning as Republican chairman to back him. “The country as a whole is getting fed up,” she said. “It was just an opportunity for me to make a protest vote.”
Nader, who declined a vice-presidential overture from former Democratic candidate George McGovern in 1972, at first resisted efforts to draft him into the current race. But he relented after two longtime associates commissioned a national poll in August which showed that voters gave him an equal chance with then-Democratic front-runner Mario Cuomo to beat Bush. But the candidate has hastened to reassure supporters that he is still a “citizen advocate,” not a politician. Said Nader last week: “I don’t even like saying ‘write in Ralph Nader,’ but that’s the only way we’re going to get any attention.” For the American consumer society’s best-known rebel, getting attention has seldom been a problem.