MANCHESTER, N.H. — For political purists here, the fall of 1987 is threatening to be one of those autumns when the fire doesn't crackle and the cider doesn't ferment.
Their newspaper, Manchester's adder-tongued, ultraconservative Union Leader, the newspaper John F. Kennedy once called the most irresponsible in America, still has not taken sides in the New Hampshire presidential primary. Until it does, there won't be that snap in the air that can redden the cheeks of the most calloused candidates.
In campaigns past, the Union Leader referred to Dwight D. Eisenhower as "a stinking hypocrite," Lyndon B. Johnson as "Snake Oil Lyndon" and Gerald R. Ford as "Jerry the Jerk." Its publisher, the late William Loeb, was widely depicted as the Darth Vader of American political journalism.
But this year the Union Leader surveyed the candidates in both major parties and yawned, declaring the field to be "a dull lot" and refusing to bestow either its blessing or its curse on anyone currently running.
"None of them seem to have the leadership qualities we need. No one there could handle it," said Loeb's 63-year-old widow, Nackey, who took over the reins of the newspaper after her husband's death and continues to subscribe to his brand of 100-proof conservatism.
"I think this is one of the most important primaries the country has faced in a long time, and I would hate to endorse someone who is second-best just for the sake of endorsing someone, especially if it was somebody that the Democrats could beat," Loeb said.
She is hoping that someone more to the paper's liking will enter the race, even at this late date, and lately she has been using her front-page editorial column to proclaim the virtues of former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick.
Candidates Ponder Indifference
The paper's indifference to declared candidates is causing a good deal of consternation as the conservatives, such as New York Rep. Jack Kemp and religious broadcaster Pat Robertson try to figure out what they have to do to gain an endorsement, and as the front-runners, Vice President George Bush and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, wonder how long they can escape the Union Leader's well-known contempt for party centrists.
"The Union Leader is playing a very unsettling role right now," said Dave Carney, a top aide to Gov. John H. Sununu, who has endorsed Bush.
This is the first Republican primary without an incumbent President running since William Loeb's death in 1981. Today, there are arguments that the paper does not have the influence it once had, not only because Nackey Loeb may be less predatory than her late husband but because the paper's audience has changed.
Nackey Loeb says she does have a different style.
"I may not be as hard-hitting as my late husband," she said, "but we have the same principles . . . we have the same victims. We still don't like the same people."
Caught up in a spiral of growth and good fortune, New Hampshire, though still a Republican state, has changed a lot, even since Loeb's death.
Looking at the state's voting population, with its influx of Democrats and independents from Massachusetts, some political analysts are saying the mix of voters has become more sophisticated, more mainstream and more moderate. They predict that the majority of Republican voters won't mirror the views of the rural, self-sustaining Union Leader devotees who long dominated the New Hampshire Republican Party.
Dole, in a recent visit to the southern part of the state, clearly did not have the Union Leader conservative in mind when he openly criticized Lt. Col Oliver L. North's behavior during the Iran- contra affair.
A strong defender of North, the newspaper has sharply criticized New Hampshire Republican Sen. Warren B. Rudman for taking North to task during the Iran-contra hearings. Rudman is expected to endorse Dole.
Said Dole: "I'm glad that Ollie mania is over. I don't think he served the President well. . . . There are certain things you do not keep from the President of the United States." Dole was referring to testimony during the Iran-contra hearings that North and other officials did not tell the President about their clandestine and possibly illegal efforts to aid the rebels in Nicaragua.
Dole needs a boost to win in New Hampshire. He admits to being in second place here, behind Bush.
Like most of the Republican candidates, he has visited the Union Leader, but he insists he did not go hat in hand. For example, he said that he would not take the Union Leader's celebrated "pledge," in which candidates vow not to raise taxes. Indeed, much of Dole's message here, especially his repeated commitment to look after the needs of handicapped people, old people and the desperately poor, seemed geared toward the kind of well-to-do moderate Republicans that William Loeb used to mock as "silk-stocking crown princes."