MANCHESTER, N.H. — When New Hampshire Democrats repudiated front-runner Walter F. Mondale in their 1984 presidential primary, they turned their backs on their party's political past.
But four years later, with the 1988 Democratic primary in this state on Tuesday, the campaign has yet to offer local voters a clear view of the party's future.
It's not that there aren't sharp and meaningful differences of policy and personality between this year's front-runner, Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, and his chief adversary, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, winner of last week's Iowa caucuses.
The trouble is that any debate over these distinctions has been drowned out by a cacophony of negative TV commercials and stump speech attacks--much as the pavements here were buried under a foot of snow last week.
Another factor distorting the national political realities in the nation's first presidential primary is the immense artificial advantage enjoyed by Dukakis as the chief executive of neighboring Massachusetts.
"Eight years of preparation is better than eight months," said public policy professor Gary Orren of Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, comparing the period Dukakis has spent as governor with the time his rivals have had to campaign in New Hampshire.
Enhancing Dukakis' role as regional favorite son is the coverage he receives in the Boston media, which dominate much of New Hampshire, a treatment critics complain is so respectful that it borders on the reverential.
"The Boston media treat politics like a sporting event," said Ed Reilly, pollster for the Gephardt campaign, and himself a Boston native. And in this particular political contest, Reilly grumbled, Dukakis is accorded the role of the beloved hometown Celtics, while his rivals are treated like visiting foes.
For these and other reasons the New Hampshire primary does not seem likely to be the defining event it was in the 1984 Democratic campaign, when Gary Hart's defeat of Mondale changed the shape of the campaign and ultimately forced the party to seek new directions.
Nevertheless, the results Tuesday are still apt to make or break some political destinies. Moreover, a look at the conduct of the campaign provides a revealing glimpse of the forces at work in the national competition, which eventually will determine the identity of the party's standard-bearer.
Significantly, at the center of the controversy here is not front-runner Dukakis but the apparent runner-up, Gephardt. And the reason appears to be that in the view of a number of independent analysts, including some Republicans, he has the most direct and compelling message of any of the Democrats, a message his rivals contend is deceptive and disingenuous.
Attack the Messenger
Seeing themselves threatened by the message, Gephardt's foes have generally attacked the messenger as lacking in sincerity and genuineness of purpose.
Ever since Gephardt arrived here last Tuesday from Iowa, he has been the target of commercials sponsored by Illinois Sen. Paul Simon, charging inconsistencies between Gephardt's rhetoric as a candidate and his record as a lawmaker. Simon, who finished second to Gephardt in Iowa and then fell behind him in polls here in New Hampshire, is hoping through these ads to overtake Gephardt and keep his own candidacy alive in subsequent contests.
And then Saturday, at the final televised debate before the Tuesday vote, Gephardt found himself the prime target of not only Simon, but also of nearly every other Democratic candidate--Dukakis, former Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt and Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore Jr.
Gephardt's aides preferred to look at the positive side of their predicament. Coming under fire like this "sends a message as to where the ideas are coming from," said pollster Reilly. "Gephardt is the one who is setting the agenda" of the New Hampshire debate.
Advance Has Stalled
But even Reilly acknowledged that "it is very difficult frankly to run a positive campaign when you're being attacked like this." And indeed the tracking polls, the daily phone canvassing of voter sentiment here, suggest that the attacks have stalled Gephardt's advance after the initial boost he got from his Iowa triumph.
But Gephardt left himself wide open for the indictment of inconsistency that Simon and others have brought against him.
What he did in effect was to reinvent himself as a politician once he became a presidential candidate. Suddenly, under the guidance of two former aides of Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy--campaign manager William Carrick and speech writer Robert Shrum--he was spouting liberal populist rhetoric. It was not the sort of talk that had been heard very often from the Richard Gephardt who chaired the House Democratic Caucus and was considered a skilled practitioner of legislative corner cutting and bargain making in the House cloakrooms.