Features

From coronation to contest

National | For both Republican and Democrat frontrunners, stumbles in New Hampshire have transformed the political race into a dogfight. But the next six weeks-featuring the multi-state "Super Tuesday" primary the first week of March-will test the strength of candidates' political organizations in a war of attrition

Issue: "Warner: First things first," Feb. 12, 2000

in Manchester, N.H. - By 5 p.m. on election day, it was hard to say who was more eager to put the campaign behind them: the voters of New Hampshire, or the media hordes who had so thoroughly trampled every corner of the state's Currier and Ives countryside. Campaign-weary residents, whose sense of civic duty is almost quaint, lined up in the snow at 6 a.m. to cast their much-analyzed ballots. But in the end, the media could barely wait for those ballots to be counted. Armed with scientific exit surveys, they were ready-hours before the polls closed-to declare a political landslide: John McCain had defeated George W. Bush. Given that the Texas governor had led in the polls only days before, the pundits could be excused for leaking the big secret a bit early. The state that had stunned frontrunners from Ronald Reagan through Bob Dole had done it again. Mr. Bush emerged shortly before 8:30 p.m. to make it official: New Hampshire had put "a bump in the road," he acknowledged, but he was ready to fight for the nomination across the rest of the country. "Bump in the road" may have been the political understatement of the season so far. Mr. Bush has paved that road with gold: In the three months leading up to the Iowa caucuses, the Texas governor's campaign spent an average of $200,000 per day. All told, after spending almost $34 million-$8 million shy of the record for presidential campaign spending, with nine months to go-Mr. Bush now is batting .500. He has one win, one loss. That New Hampshire loss was a doozy-49 percent for Mr. McCain, 30 percent for Mr. Bush. (Deep in the distance Steve Forbes bested Alan Keyes for third, and Gary Bauer was neck and neck with "others" in 1 percent territory.) So the two frontrunners headed immediately to South Carolina, where military veterans make up a large percentage of the electorate, and where independents can vote in the GOP primary. Mr. McCain did very well with both those groups in New Hampshire, meaning that his momentum should help to make South Carolina competitive. To be fair to Mr. Bush, not all that spending was concentrated in the first two states; he has a huge campaign, a 50-state effort that will help him big-time as the campaign wears on. Still, what was expected to be the coronation has suddenly become a contest. On the Democratic side, Al Gore survived a scare to beat Bill Bradley by just four points. The former New Jersey senator vowed to keep up the fight through at least mid-March, and he has the money to do it. That was good news for Republicans, who believe a long, bitter fight among the Democrats will help the eventual GOP nominee. And the campaign in New Hampshire did turn bitter, with Mr. Bradley accusing the vice president of lying and tying him at every opportunity to the moral bankruptcy of the Clinton administration. Such criticism helped him narrow a double-digit lead by Mr. Gore in just a matter of days, and Republicans were busy taking notes. Should Mr. Gore go on to win the nomination, he's sure to hear the same attacks again, all the way through Election Day. If there was good news for Mr. Bush in New Hampshire, it was the poor showing of his challengers on the right. Steve Forbes, Alan Keyes, and Gary Bauer together mustered a combined 20 percent. With Mr. McCain challenging him strongly from the left, Mr. Bush may emerge as the surprise winner of the so-called "conservative primary" within the larger Republican race. With all eyes suddenly on South Carolina, two lessons from the final days of campaigning in New Hampshire may be lost. Politics here is supposed to be old-fashioned: town meetings, policy discussions at the local diner, lots of give-and-take. For the past year, all of that was true. But in the waning hours, New Hampshire got a heavy dose of the "newfangled" campaigning that the rest of the country will see. Fearing last-minute mistakes, most candidates cut back their public appearances, preferring to blanket the airwaves with soft-focus, flag-waving ads. Commercial breaks during the evening news were wall-to-wall voting appeals: During one local newscast from nearby Boston, every minute of ad time was sold to political candidates. With so much riding on the next day's vote, no one wanted to trip up at the last minute. After Mr. Bauer's flapjack flop (see sidebar), George W. Bush threw out his schedule for the rest of the day. He lingered over lunch for two and a half hours, went sledding with two of his children, and dropped by a Nashua bowling alley for some photos. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of dollars worth of Bush commercials clogged the airwaves, and workers called 100,000 New Hampshire residents in a massive get-out-the-vote effort. Steve Forbes was on the phone and on the air as well-but on the sidewalk just once on Monday. Two blocks up the street from the tony Phillips-Exeter Academy in Exeter, he made a brief appearance at a family-owned fish market. "Spill the gravy boat," read one side of the marquee out front. "We believe in Steve," proclaimed the other. The small crowd was a mix of true believers (one man in a trench coat was spinning Vince Foster conspiracy theories to anyone who would listen) and the merely curious (a retired woman said she'd already made up her mind-in favor of Bill Bradley). The curious, however, may have been disappointed, because this was a stop designed for the media. When the Forbes buses arrived blaring Sousa marches from their loudspeakers, the candidate and his family stepped off, waved to the crowd, and disappeared inside the market. Members of the press were hustled in to get photos and scribble quotes, but residents were left to shiver on the sidewalk. "It's very crowded in there," said Forbes operatives by way of apology, as they stood in front of the doorway. Ten minutes later, when the doors opened and the smell of fish wafted over the sidewalk, the waiting crowd had been organized. The locals were herded to a spot behind the bank of microphones and Forbes placards pressed into their mittened hands. As the candidate emerged from the fishmarket, exactly 11 voters stood in the locals area, while at least twice as many media representatives jostled for position in front of the microphones. Mr. Forbes hit his mark and started talking about taxes and voter anger, but the voters behind him didn't look angry. They looked blank. The microphones into which he was speaking were hooked into TV and radio sound systems, but not into a loudspeaker. It was a speech purely for the cameras, so it didn't particularly matter if the 11 voters were convinced-or even if they could hear a word that was being said. Later on Monday, as the sun began to set in the seacoast town of Portsmouth, perhaps 250 people gathered in the slushy snow of Prescott Park to hear frontrunner John McCain. But there wasn't much straight talk from the so-called Straight Talk Express, and Mr. McCain didn't offer a single policy initiative or take a single question from the crowd. Instead, there was more mugging for the inevitable cameras. Shortly before the candidate's arrival, seven young people had taken the stage to teach the crowd some cheers. "1-2-3-4, who's gonna beat Albert Gore?" they chanted, to which the crowd was supposed to respond, "John McCain! John McCain! John McCain!" It was a lame cheer even by the standards of summer camp, and few voters chose to strain their vocal cords or take their hands out of their pockets long enough to clap. When dozens of reporters showed up ahead of the candidate, however, the crowd came alive. With cameras and tape recorders rolling, the cheers suddenly seemed less childish, and the crowd went wild. On the six o'clock news, the cries of "McCain! McCain! McCain!" sounded downright frantic. If the final days of New Hampshire foreshadowed an intense media campaign, they also showed just how ugly the contest could get. On Monday, Mr. Bush was scheduled to take a walk down Exeter's picturesque Water Street, shaking hands and asking for votes. Throngs of reporters overran the historic Loaf and Ladle Tavern, where the walk was scheduled to begin. A couple of retired local residents wandered around with bowls of steaming soup, searching in vain for a place to sit among the media from Mexico, France, Germany, and Japan. Even Dan Rather was there, managing to somehow stay aloof from the media circus in which he was a star. Two blocks down Water Street, in front of Exeter's red-brick, Federal-style town hall, was a circus of a different sort. About 50 Gore supporters rallied there, though their candidate was not scheduled to be in town that day. Instead, they had their likely general-election opponent in their sights. As Bush volunteers arrived to cheer their man, the Gore crowd pulled out bullhorns and drowned them out. They urged the governor to go back to Texas and sang, rather incongruously, "We Shall Overcome." Scattered among the traditional Gore signs were hand-lettered placards with messages like "Jail to George"; one heckler returned to the drug theme with, "Mr. Bush, we challenge you to roll up your sleeves." Overpowered and under-amplified, the Bush crowd wandered back up Water Street toward the Loaf and Ladle to await the arrival of their candidate. But Mr. Bush never showed up. After perhaps half an hour of rumors and questions by the assembled media, Bush organizers finally offered an explanation: bad weather. The governor would appear in Derry instead. Few in the press corps bought the explanation. They had made it to Exeter, after all, as had dozens of Bush volunteers, bused in from Manchester and Nashua. Besides, the freezing rain had stopped hours ago, and the skies were clearing. Jubilant Gore guerrillas didn't buy it, either. After a few cheers and pats on the back, they packed up their bullhorns and went home. One heckler, a bleached blond, middle-aged woman in a red, white, and blue-striped ski jacket, stopped at the local coffeehouse on her way out of town. "Rule number one of politics," she said to the clerk in a whiskey voice, "ruin the other guy's photo op." Outside the coffeehouse, a half-dozen policemen were picking up traffic cones and cleaning up after the crowds. Two locals emerged from a neighboring bookstore, shaking their heads and clucking their tongues at the confrontation they'd just experienced. "I've never seen it like this before," said one. "It's like a contact sport this year." As New Hampshire recovers from its moment in the electoral spotlight, the warning to the rest of the country is: Let the games begin.

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