NASHUA, N.H. — With polls now signaling substantial erosion in Vice President George Bush's lead going into the New Hampshire Republican presidential primary on Tuesday, Bush gave a relaxed and forceful performance at the first gathering of all six Republican candidates since the Iowa caucuses.
The forum here, held Wednesday night before about 500 people, also was noteworthy for its absence of malice between the front-runners, Bush and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole, who have been sniping at each other during much of the campaign. Dole won the Iowa caucuses and appears to be gaining rapidly on Bush in New Hampshire.
Bush Clings to Lead
A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken Tuesday night showed Bush clinging to a 33% to 29% lead, down from a double-digit lead last weekend. New York Rep. Jack Kemp was third with 12%, and former television evangelist Pat Robertson fourth at 9%, up slightly since polls taken before the Iowa vote. Former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV had 7% and former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. had 2%.
The fact that Bush was attending the forum was a sign of his campaign's concern. He has hastily rearranged his schedule and revamped his campaigning style, returning to the state a day earlier than planned in order to attend.
However, he showed no signs of running scared on the stage here.
He was at his best defending the nuclear arms treaty, recently signed with the Soviet Union, against hostile questions from a member of the audience. The questioner said he did not think Bush was tough enough to deal with Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev and also said he did not think the treaty would lead to the elimination of Soviet warheads, even though the treaty calls for dismantling about 1,600 medium range Soviet missiles.
Bush replied: "The weapons are out of there. They are gone."
Defending the treaty could prove to be a calculated risk in New Hampshire, where anti-Soviet conservative voters could swing a close election. However, Bush's defense of the treaty reinforces his claim of unwavering loyalty to President Reagan, which is central to Bush's campaign in a state that reveres Reagan.
Dole Does Not Attack
Dole, meanwhile, carefully refrained from attacking Bush, apparently reflecting a belief in his camp that things are moving his way.
"The environment of this election is such that I don't think we have to do anything dramatic to change it," said Thomas D. Rath, a key Dole strategist here. He added that Dole's main task in the next few days is "to look and act like a guy who is ready to be President of the United States."
In particular, Dole forces contend that Republican Party regulars who are shocked by the surprise second-place showing of Robertson in Iowa may now be thinking that Dole is the best man to turn back the Robertson tide.
The Iowa results "make the point that this man (Bush) is vulnerable electorally," Rath said. "Regular Republicans always had doubts about the vice president's electability. They want a candidate who can win."
Kemp Needles Dole
Indeed, if anyone was a target Wednesday, it was Dole. Kemp needled Bush for agreeing with tax increases passed in the past eight years, but noted more pointedly that "Bob Dole has never seen a tax he didn't want to hike. When he talked about the future, it's time to grab your wallets."
Dole chose in his portion of the program to address his own reputation for toughness, one that some critics say has verged on meanness. Dole argued that his tough streak would be a virtue in his dealings with Congress as well as Gorbachev.
"Some people say I'm tough, but I think you have to be tough. I would say, if you want to see toughness, just let the Democrats try to lower or scuttle the lower tax rates Republicans in Congress got passed for President Reagan."
Dole said he would resist any further nuclear arms agreements with the Soviet Union unless the Soviets greatly reduce their conventional weapons forces in Eastern Europe.
Basic Stump Speech
Robertson stuck to his basic stump speech, that the country's morals are in sorry shape, as reflected by the high divorce rate, the rampant abuse of drugs, the AIDS epidemic, and especially the spending that has helped produce the government's $2 trillion deficit.
"I have been addressing the greatness of America and the decline of that greatness and my desire to see America No. 1 in the world, and my firm conviction that the only way that's going to happen is through a restoration of the moral values that we had here in this state and throughout the nation when America, indeed, was No. 1," Robertson said.
"Folks, I owe no favors to any special interest group, and, as President of the United States, I am free to serve God as my conscience leads me, and be a servant of all the people," he said.
The forum capped a day in New Hampshire in which Kemp sought to rouse his conservative supporters with direct attacks on Dole, and Dole expanded on his proposals for new government efforts to help the underprivileged.