MANCHESTER, N. H. — Former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. had just completed his standard campaign pitch to a late-afternoon coffee klatch here when a well-tailored woman asked how he felt about his successor's handling of the secret U.S. arms sales to Iran.
"How could (Secretary of State) George Shultz have allowed Oliver North and John Poindexter to treat him so badly?" the woman began. "Why didn't he resign?"
Without the slightest hesitation, Haig delivered a scathing judgment on one of the leading figures in the Reagan Administration. "Some people would rather be secretary of state than be right," he quipped. "Not Al Haig."
It is one of the great curiosities of the current political campaign that Haig--whom President Reagan selected to be the ranking member of his original Cabinet and who once hoped to be "the vicar" of Reagan's foreign policy--is gradually emerging among the Republican presidential contenders as the most biting critic of the Reagan Administration's performance and decision-making.
As he tours the nation these days, Haig is a lonely figure, a candidate with far less money or political organization than most of his rivals. Lacking a strong political base within the Republican Party, he is forced to plead with party regulars to consider his possible future appeal to independents and Democrats.
But his political isolation and his alienation from the Reagan White House--he was replaced as secretary of state after serving for 17 months--give Haig the freedom to speak out. And speak out he does.
Rarely does he let an opportunity slip by to deliver a negative verdict on the policies and the principal figures of the Reagan era. The one-time White House chief of staff and scion of the foreign-policy Establishment has become the classic insider-on-the-outs.
On the stump, Haig is the vicar of mordant sarcasm. His barbs extend to many aspects of American foreign policy. He blasts Reagan's handling of arms-control negotiations at Reykjavik a year ago as "the near-miss" and terms the Administration's actions to win the release of U.S. News & World Report correspondent Nicholas Daniloff from a Soviet prison "the non-deal deal."
He voices frequent opposition to one of the linchpins of Reagan Administration foreign policy: covert aid to the Contras who are fighting the government of Nicaragua.
"When we claim the right to decide what kind of regime a government has in this hemisphere, we're claiming a Brezhnev doctrine of our own," he explains. Instead, Haig tells audiences, the United States should press Cuba and the Soviet Union to stay out of Central America.
He heaps scorn not only upon Shultz but also on many others of the President's men, present and former.
He tells a Kiwanis Club luncheon in New Hampshire that Treasury Secretary James A. Baker III is a great lawyer but "doesn't know anything about the bottom line." David A. Stockman, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget, kept quiet on the nation's budget deficits until he was lured away by "big bucks on Wall Street," Haig says.
As for Poindexter, the former national security adviser who testified last summer that he did not tell the President about the diversion of funds from Iran arms sales to Contras, Haig quips: "I worked with Poindexter. I don't think he'd have crossed the street without permission."
For all that, Haig insists he is not running against Reagan himself; he insists he is not about to commit "political hari-kari." He points out that he campaigned for Reagan in 1980 and 1984.
"I am a strong and avid supporter of Ronald Reagan's overall contribution, and that's the renaissance of the American spirit," Haig said in an interview. ". . . When I said I respect Ronald Reagan and I think he's done more good than he has bad, I mean that."
Nevertheless, Haig evidently remains on far better terms with associates of former President Richard M. Nixon, whom he served as chief of staff, than he does with the Reagan White House. According to one source in the Haig campaign, Haig talks regularly with Nixon on the telephone.
The list of financial contributors to Haig's 1988 presidential campaign includes Nixon's son-in-law, Edward F. Cox; his fund-raiser, Maurice H. Stans; his congressional lobbyist, William E. Timmons; one of his leading financial backers, Leonard K. Firestone, and the family of Nixon's best friend, C.G. (Bebe) Rebozo.
Haig, 62, a West Point graduate who spent most of his career in the Army, rose to national prominence during the Nixon Administration, serving first as the top aide to National Security Adviser Henry A. Kissinger and then, in 1973-1974, as the White House chief of staff during the tumultuous final days of the Nixon term.