MANCHESTER, N.H. — The Republican race for the presidency, a sluggish contest for months here, is heading for a frenzied finish with Vice President George Bush and Kansas Sen. Bob Dole running neck and neck and former religious broadcaster Pat Robertson making a serious bid for third place in a state where experts said he would not be a contender.
In the final week of campaigning, political fallout from the Iowa caucuses, a paralyzing winter storm and the sudden withdrawal of former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. from the race have helped rewrite the script for a primary that the vice president once had been expected to dominate.
Not just close, the race is highly volatile, according to polls here. Bush lost a 20-percentage-point lead virtually overnight after his third-place finish in Iowa. And, while Dole shot upwards after his victory, many of his new supporters are indicating that they could change their minds again.
Bush, whose political prestige, if not his candidacy, is on the line, has dramatically altered his campaign style. He has gone from country club to country kitchen as he strains to re-establish a bond with ordinary voters. The vice president also launched his harshest attack to date on Dole, blaming the Senate minority leader for losing the battle to confirm Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork.
For his part, Dole is making fewer wisecracks about Bush as he strives to look both conservative and presidential in a state where people used to say he was too moderate and too much of a congressional insider to win.
In eight of the last nine Republican primaries, New Hampshire has chosen the man who went on to become the party's nominee. That well could happen again. If Dole wins, he will be propelled by the mighty momentum of back-to-back victories in the first major tests of the campaign. If Bush wins, he rekindles his candidacy and heads South, where he has been regarded as the strongest GOP contender.
Robertson, meanwhile, now placed by the polls in a dead heat with New York Rep. Jack Kemp for third place, is tailoring his campaign to appeal to voters traditionally skeptical about mixing religion and politics. Robertson avoids talking about his long career as one of the giants in religious broadcasting and focuses instead on his skills as a businessman. His goal is to emerge from New Hampshire as the conservative alternative to Bush and Dole.
Must Beat Kemp, Du Pont
To succeed, Robertson must beat Kemp and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV. Du Pont, who has the support of the Manchester Union Leader, the state's largest and most conservative newspaper, is nearly even with Kemp and Robertson in some polls.
A strong finish for Robertson, in a state lacking many evangelical voters, would validate his credentials as a contender, and make it much harder for his rivals to go on claiming that he is merely the candidate of the religious right.
"In New Hampshire right now, you could almost say there are two races going on. There is the one for the more mainstream Republican vote and one for the conservatives," said Elsie Vartanian, the chairwoman of the state's Republican Party.
So far, the contest between Bush and Dole has been more diplomatic than it was in Iowa. The character-baiting that went on there has been largely missing. On the other hand, Robertson and Kemp have begun to exchange angry words. Kemp charged Friday that the Robertson campaign is trying to tar him with the brush of moral permissiveness after leaflets appeared accusing Kemp of being soft on pornography and abortion.
Today, the candidates are headed for a climactic debate. Being held just two days before the primary, the debate offers New Hampshire voters their last chance to see all of the Republican candidates together. Moreover, it offers the candidates one of those opportunities to pull ahead on the basis of a few well-chosen words. Because it has happened before, people are holding their breath.
"If there ever was a race in search of a pivotal event, something for the voters to finally hang their hat on, this year is it," said one GOP official here.
New Hampshire always has been Bush's state to lose. He came in early, built the largest organization of any candidate, gained the support of the state's popular and energetic governor, John H. Sununu, and jumped out to an early lead in the polls. From the outset, Bush's greatest strength was his relationship with President Reagan, who receives a lot of the credit in New Hampshire for the state's thriving economy.
But Bush never quite dispelled the suspicion among political observers here that his lead rested on uneasy support. Sure, people would associate Bush with Reagan, but many of them would also recall that they voted for Reagan over Bush in the 1980 New Hampshire primary.