MANCHESTER, N.H. — They hate negative advertising and opinion polls gone wild. Most of them aren't sure who they want to be president. But to the loyal Republicans gathered in Vic Goulet's TV room, one thing was pretty clear Thursday night.
There was one defining moment in the televised debate between the eight men jockeying to take on Bill Clinton in the 1996 race for the White House. It belonged to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole. And it wasn't good.
Mid-answer on the problems of Social Security, Dole switched topics and went off on a tangent about challenger Patrick J. Buchanan, illegal immigration and the North American Free Trade Agreement.
"Pat's off on this isolationist kick--build a fence around America," he complained, saying that what the United States needs to do is to build a strong economy in Mexico. If that doesn't work, "we ought to supplement or compensate the states who have to take up the slack on Medicaid, health care and other--education and other costs incurred because of illegals."
"That really grabbed me," said attorney Marty Baroff, 33. "Dole proposing in an offhand way for government to support the border states. That was probably the most disappointing moment in the campaign."
"That's ridiculous," said his law partner, Paul Alfano, 36. "I was disappointed by Dole and by Alexander. . . . I'm more undecided now than ever. I'm leaning toward [U.S. Rep. Robert K.] Dornan. But I have some hesitation. He's a bit of a clown."
Eight Republicans from the Manchester area, including the two attorneys, gathered in Goulet's basement recreation room Thursday night for chips, salsa and the televised forum. The seven men and one woman, while varying widely in age and conservatism, are nowhere near a random sample. They are Goulet's friends and acquaintances. And they all plan to vote.
Even before the debate began, most of them had turned on publisher Steve Forbes. They said they were tired of weeks of attack ads and they placed most of the blame for the bitter campaign squarely in the lap of the man with the biggest media budget.
"It's very frustrating, the negative ads," said Haig Zeytoonian, 43, a statewide operations supervisor for Midas Muffler. "I really don't know which way to vote this time. I don't think that Forbes needed to resort to negative ads."
From 8 to 9:30 p.m., it was Forbes who endured the greatest ridicule at this gathering. "Blink, Steve," said Dole backer Goulet, 48, as Forbes stumbled through his opening statement. "He's a terrible speaker. . . . Steve Forbes self-destructed."
"He has pretty poor presentation skills, and he doesn't have a good message," said attorney Denis Robinson, 29, undecided at 8 p.m. and undecided still at 9:30. "He's just trying to cloak himself in Ronald Reagan's limelight."
The group was cool toward Lamar Alexander, mostly ignored Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar and flatly dismissed industrialist Morry Taylor.
And Buchanan, weighed by a failing voice and allegations about his campaign co-chairman, was not himself, the audience concluded.
Buchanan: "I would have a security fence across all those areas of mass transit into this country. We would stop illegal immigration cold."
Attorney Baroff shaking his head: "He is frightening."
Buchanan: "Wages are going down."
The undecided Alfano: "You're going down, Pat."
What resonated Thursday night? Forbes' call for a change in Social Security that would have younger workers pay into tax-free retirement accounts. Former State Department official Alan Keyes' call for a return to morality and his disparagement of negative campaigning.
The negative campaign is not his fault, he said. "I don't advertise. That kind of store-bought politics is the reason we have the problems we do today," he said as Zeytoonian nodded from the sofa. "We don't want the best president money can buy."
If style and fervor were the deciding factors in who did best in the lengthy debate, the surprise winner Thursday night had to be Dornan (R-Garden Grove). "Gentlemen, keep your eye on the ball," he told his rivals. "The target is Clinton."
"I like what Dornan said, to pull together and focus on Clinton," said Winston McCarty, 67, a New Hampshire state senator whose allegiances have shifted this election season from retired Gen. Colin L. Powell through Texas Sen. Phil Gramm to undecided. "I think I could vote for Dornan tonight. . . . We've got to stay united as a Republican Party."
When the debate was over, the sound switched off, the battling opinions aired and picked apart, Goulet pulled out his favorite bumper sticker and propped it on the cable box on top of the television.
"This," he said with a sweep of his arm, "is the one thing that we all agree on." The sentiment? "Wishing the Clintons a Very Happy Retirement in '96."