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Politics 88 : New Hampshire Turnabout: Bush, Dole in Role Reversal

February 16, 1988|BOB SECTER and CATHLEEN DECKER | Times Staff Writers

BEDFORD, N.H. — Photographers and television crews pressed against the restraining ropes at George Bush's headquarters here the other day as the vice president sidled into the telephone bank to call and woo some voters.

He picked up the receiver, dialed a number and, a few rings later, the phone was answered--by a machine. The man who not long ago was clearly the leading contender for the Republican presidential nomination left a message after the beep.

Some days--and in some campaigns--things just never go right. Ever since he was trounced last week in the Iowa caucuses, Bush has seemed like the man who ran over the cat and wrecked his car on the way to work, then spilled coffee on his suit.

If Bush looks hapless, Sen. Bob Dole, his main challenger, is batting 1.000. Dole's big victory in Iowa, a surprise endorsement from Republican dropout Alexander M. Haig Jr. and a sizable improvement of his standing in the polls both here and nationwide have propelled the Kansas senator and his supporters on an emotional high.

'Electricity in the Air'

"It's a shot of Adrenalin, it puts electricity in the air," said former Labor Secretary William E. Brock III, Dole's national campaign chairman. "You come into town and people rush across the street to shake hands. The motivation of your workers goes sky high."

Headliners on the political stage here all week, Dole and Bush visibly swapped roles as they crisscrossed New Hampshire stumping for votes in today's primary. Bush, long the front-running prince of the GOP Establishment, became something of a pauper, desperately fumbling for a new identity and to regain the aura of invincibility he once enjoyed. Meanwhile, Dole the underdog was transformed into the man to beat, the candidate who tried to stay above the fray.

The road to the nomination and the White House, of course, is littered with the hopes of overconfident candidates dashed by surprise results in New Hampshire. Just ask Bush, who won in Iowa in 1980 and then lost his front-runner status by the time the New Hampshire primary rolled around.

For the last several days, at least, the breaks have been going Dole's way, and it shows. There is a new timbre in his voice and a lilt to his step. His rallies have grown more vibrant as they have also grown in size. His speeches sizzle and his droll punch lines click.

Bigger Crowds for Dole

Nearly 1,200 people turned out for a Dole rally in Concord last week. That is more than twice the number of votes he received in the entire state back in 1980, when he first ran for President and finished last in the GOP primary.

For the first time in a long year of campaigning, the ever-cautious Dole on Monday grudgingly acknowledged that he might be pulling ahead of Bush, a somewhat risky bit of bravado should results fall short of expectations. "It feels good," Dole told backers at a Moose Lodge in Dover. "Sometimes you can just tell by the feel."

Bush's feeling has to be a bit queasy these days. His once commanding lead of the Republican field has vanished and his once vaunted political organization seems in disarray.

On caucus night in Iowa, he dismissed the experience as a bad nightmare in an atypical state and said he looked forward to New Hampshire as "friendly territory." Yet, by the weekend, he had stopped talking about what would happen "when" he won New Hampshire and was substituting the word if .

The Bush campaign, usually as regimented as a Marine Corps drill team, suddenly took on an impromptu air more akin to the cavalier crusade of Democrat Gary Hart.

A Hasty Image Transplant

Panicky Bush consultants tried to perform nothing short of an emergency identity transplant on the vice president's Eastern Establishment image.

He shed his well-tailored suits in favor of slacks and a royal blue Windbreaker. Not a country club stop was booked on his schedule. He hung out at lumberyards and truck stops. He mingled often with voters and even made a habit of talking to reporters, things he had seemed loath to try before. His motorcade shrunk and on Thursday, the vice president's limousine did the unthinkable: It stopped at a red light.

Bush jettisoned many of the trappings of incumbency in which he once luxuriated as he tried to shake the rigidity from his schedule and style in what one official of his organization described as a "touch me, see me, feel me" campaign.

There was Bush driving a forklift, Bush behind the wheel of a semi-trailer truck, Bush steering a snowplow, Bush pumping hands in a shopping mall. Good TV. Just a regular guy trying to do regular things--for the cameras.

Old Optimism Faded

Just as jarring as the visual change was the startling emotional departure from the brimming optimism long peddled by the candidate and his staff.

He tinkered with his message, too. He acknowledged a lack of eloquence and grace but insisted that it only masked a caring, subtly passionate persona.

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