As the Presidential race moves into high gear, analysts would normally be looking to Iowa's Feb. 10 caucuses as the first important test. But Democrats have all but conceded Iowa to home-state Senator Tom Harkin, and this is one state where President Bush isn't looking over his shoulder at a right-wing challenger.
That inflates the importance of New Hampshire's Feb. 18 primary as a bellwether. Granite State voters are notorious free spirits, and the one-third of the electorate registered as independents can vote in either the Democratic or Republican primaries. This year, an additional factor makes the primary even more volatile: A sickly economy has left voters angry about the Bush Administration's passivity and open to Democratic activism.
New Hampshire's economic landscape is far more barren now than in 1988, when the state basked in a New England boom that had driven the unemployment rate down to 2.5%. Today, the "miracle" is a fading memory. High-tech job losses, a real estate bust, and the collapse of local banks have sucked New Hampshire into a deeper recession than the rest of the country. Even the state's two electric utilities went bankrupt. "It's more like the Great Depression than a typical downturn in the business cycle," says Manchester lawyer Joseph F. Keefe, a Democratic activist. "People expect the government to do something about this."
A BIG FAVORITE. Four years ago, candidate Bush, at the urging of then-Governor John H. Sununu, won the hearts of New Hampshirites by promising "no new taxes." But Bush went back on the pledge in 1990, and conservatives are unforgiving. "His breach of faith on taxes is more visible in New Hampshire than anywhere else," says Republican analyst Kevin Phillips. "But the lack of an economic game plan adds to his vulnerability." Commentator Patrick J. Buchanan may give conservatives a way to vent their spleen if, as expected, he jumps into the race on Dec. 10. Buchanan will offer a new round of tax cuts, combined with a large dose of isolationism.
The President, of course, remains the favorite to win the primary. But Buchanan can still embarrass Bush, and if the President responds by trying to placate the GOP right, he could lose moderates to the Democrats. "Because New Hampshire is devastated, Buchanan is already pulling 20% to 24%," says political analyst William Schneider. "A President who's vulnerable in his own party's primary is in trouble."
Even Bush's backers say his Hooveresque policies are worsening his problems. Governor Judd Gregg, just chosen to head the President's New Hampshire reelection team, acknowledges that Buchanan "shouldn't be underestimated. People are upset over the economy and want to see some action." Adds Joseph A. Baute, owner of a Keene printing-equipment company: "I don't think the Administration cares or understands how difficult things are up here."
For the Democrats, New Hampshire is an opportunity: The winner will grab the lead nationally. All the Democrats are shaping their appeal to the middle class. Early front-runners are ex-Senator Paul E. Tsongas, who lives just over the state line in Lowell, Mass., and Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, whose heroism in Vietnam appeals to voters. Although Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton's New Hampshire campaign is just getting started, he has impressed state pols with a well-focused, moderate message. Fence-sitting New York Governor Mario M. Cuomo, who polls very well, faces a Dec. 20 filing deadline for the New Hampshire primary.
Since all the Democrats are coming with an armful of economic blueprints, they'll have an easy time playing to the state's distress. Bush faces a far more difficult task, counseling patience and self-reliance to a state that seems ready for a dose of old-fashioned government activism.