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WHEN CITIZENS CHOOSE Change

February 14, 1988|William Schneider | William Schneider is a contributing editor to Opinion.

WASHINGTON — In 1988, Americans must decide whether they want change or continuity. Do we continue in the same direction or change course and follow different policies? In Monday's Iowa caucuses, the answer was loud and clear. Iowans voted for change. The candidates who did well in both parties made the strongest case for change--Democrat Richard A. Gephardt, Republicans Bob Dole and Marion G. (Pat) Robertson.

The status-quo candidates--George Bush on the Republican side and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis for the Democrats--fared poorly in Iowa. But they will have their chance this week in New Hampshire. If Iowa was the extreme test of the change argument, New Hampshire is an equally strong test of support for the status quo.

The contrast between the two states is stark. Iowa is a farm and manufacturing economy that only recently began to climb out of recession. The state has been losing population since 1980. New Hampshire, with the nation's lowest unemployment rate, has a booming high-tech and service economy. Its population has grown almost 10% since 1980.

Ask the people who live there. When CBS News polled New Hampshire voters last month, 53% said their state's economy was in very good shape. The figure for Iowa: 2%. President Reagan's job-approval rating in Iowa was almost 20 points lower than in New Hampshire.

Dukakis and Bush have enjoyed strong leads in New Hampshire polls because they are running as incumbents in a prosperous state. Bush is incumbent vice president and Dukakis is the incumbent governor of a neighboring state that dominates New Hampshire media. The Reagan legacy and the "Massachusetts miracle" are expected to play well in New Hampshire. In Iowa, they were a flop.

Last week, The Los Angeles Times poll asked Republican caucus-goers in Iowa how they thought things were going in the country. Only 18% found them going in the right direction. They voted for Bush. By contrast, 30% said things "have gotten off on the wrong track." They voted for Robertson. The remaining 52% were ambivalent; they said things were "somewhere in between." They voted for Dole. In other words, those who voted for Dole and Robertson were registering discontent. How much discontent? Dole and Robertson came in first and second. Bush came in third, seriously wounded.

When Bush is wounded, he bleeds. Right now he is hemorrhaging. He may soon bleed out. In a hysterical effort to salvage his candidacy, Bush is trying to imitate Dole. Dole, a Kansan, campaigned on the theme, "He's one of us" in Iowa--making Bush "one of them." Last week, Bush, who grew up in Connecticut, told New Hampshire voters, "I'm one of you." A reporter pointed out that the vice president claims to be a Texan. "I'm one of them, too," Bush replied. "I voted in every election in Texas since 1948." How about Massachusetts, which votes on Super Tuesday? "Can't vote in Massachusetts," Bush said. "But I was born there. I'm one of them, too."

Dole, who knows the Reagan legacy is far more popular in New Hampshire than in Iowa, has been busy linking himself to Reagan. "For those Republicans who are campaigning to pick up the national security legacy that Ronald Reagan will leave behind," he said last week, "I challenge them to join me in this clear and unequivocal pledge: I will develop SDI (the President's Strategic Defense Initiative). I will test SDI. I will deploy SDI." Bush and Dole are trading identities. Bush is doing it in the wrong state, however.

Robertson, the other big GOP winner in Iowa, is on a roll. Robertson supporters are organized and intensely committed. The smaller the turnout, the better he does. Robertson won the Iowa straw poll last year (where you had to pay to vote). He came in second at the caucuses last week (where you had to attend a meeting to vote). Now, to prove he is a player, he has to win a primary. He may do just that in the South. Evangelical voters were energized by Iowa; they may come to the polls in large numbers for South Carolina on March 5 and Texas on March 8.

Meanwhile, in New Hampshire, Robertson is trying to break out of his evangelical base. He wants to displace Rep. Jack Kemp of New York as the leader of the party's conservative wing. Robertson has a beef with Kemp. In Michigan last month, Kemp broke with Robertson and joined Bush to deprive Robertson of his rightful delegate share.

Kemp's support comes from conservative activists more interested in economics than religion. Robertson can win these "secular conservatives" only if they give up on Kemp. Even though they know Robertson can't win the nomination, they have to be persuaded to vote for him to "send them a message." It could happen. Conservatives feel angry and betrayed these days and Robertson is much better at the politics of resentment than Kemp.

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