MANCHESTER, N. H. — Vice President George Bush is striving desperately to head off another defeat by Sen. Bob Dole in the Republican presidential contest, while Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis appears headed for an easy victory in the Democratic column as New Hampshire voters go to the polls today in the first primary of the 1988 campaign.
As all candidates added the closing flourishes to their campaigns Monday, election officials predicted a record turnout--as high as 75% of the state's estimated 600,000 voters. But forecasts of rain or snow caused concern among candidates counting on a high turnout.
In both parties, the race has been, in effect, segmented into two levels, with some of the most intense competition among the lower-echelon candidates who are threatened with extinction if they do poorly today.
Battle of Conservatives
Among the Republicans, New York Rep. Jack Kemp, former religious broadcaster Pat Robertson and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV are fighting for the right to claim the allegiance of GOP conservatives and to ultimately become the alternative to either Bush or Dole,should one of those leaders be forced out.
On the Democratic side, Missouri Rep. Richard A. Gephardt and Illinois Sen. Paul Simon are waging a bitter struggle for second place and the chance to emerge as a credible threat in the South's March 8 Super Tuesday primaries.
Voters in Dixville Notch, which traditionally produces the first returns, favored Bush among Republicans with 11 votes. Dole had 6, Kemp 5, Du Pont 2, former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. 2 and Robertson 1. Haig had already dropped out of the race. Gephardt led Democrats with 4 votes. Simon got 3 and no other Democrat got any. The village, population 47, voted at midnight.
Although the campaign here has gone on for months because of this state's strategic importance, the Republican contest has been transformed dramatically within the last few days by the shock waves from last week's Iowa caucuses. In that contest, longtime front-runner Bush suffered a humiliating defeat, finishing third behind Dole and Robertson.
On Monday, Bush spent his last full day of campaigning here visiting a retirement home and sipping coffee and doughnuts with restaurant customers, telling people he would pull out a victory here.
Bush was joined by retired Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona, the latest in a series of celebrities flown in to shore up the vice president's campaign.
"He's the best-qualified candidate of my lifetime," Goldwater said.
In addition, Bush broadcast a five-minute campaign commercial that features Goldwater saying he supports Bush because he is the one candidate who will "keep the revolution alive we started 25 years ago"--a reference to Goldwater's 1964 candidacy.
Other famous faces in Bush's contingent Monday included former Boston Red Sox star Ted Williams and Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. Williams, drawing as much attention as Bush, found himself signing autographs on the vice president's back.
Undaunted by late polls that show he has lost his lead to Dole, Bush predicted he would score the same kind of upset in New Hampshire that Ronald Reagan did in 1980.
Dole, meanwhile, continued to play it cautious, as he did in Iowa before scoring his impressive victory.
"I'm always skeptical until the polls close," he said.
Brock Expresses Confidence
William E. Brock III, Dole's national campaign chairman, expressed more confidence.
"I don't think it's possible for George Bush to win tomorrow," said Brock, who resigned as secretary of labor to run the Dole campaign.
It was Robertson who figured out how to make the most news on the eve of the primary, perhaps unintentionally, with a widely disputed charge that there are Soviet nuclear missiles in Cuba. But, after saying it first during a televised candidates' debate on Sunday, Robertson vacillated in the face of strong denials from the White House, the Pentagon, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee and from rival candidates.
Robertson is generally believed to be in a fight for third place here, in a state that was not thought to have a broad base of evangelical voters. However, Douglas Wead, a Bush aide and an expert on evangelical Christians, suggested that there may be a potential support network in the 50,000 active contributors in New Hampshire to the "700 Club" television show that Robertson founded.
Wants to Count Votes
Robertson supporters have angered state Republican officials by asking to make their own vote count. Scott Malyrick, the party's executive director, said his office has received about 25 such requests, some asking to count the votes, others simply asking to observe the vote count.
Party Chairwoman Elsie Vartanian said she was "offended" by the requests, which are similar to ones Robertson made in Iowa last week.
"It's impugning the integrity of the ballot people. It's offensive, and that's why I've ignored it," Vartanian said.