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Stakes Are High as N.H. Voters Go to the Polls

February 20, 1996|MARIA L. La GANGA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MANCHESTER, N.H. — New Hampshire voters go to the polls today to decide one of the closest and meanest primary campaigns in recent history, an impossible-to-call Republican presidential contest whose results will reverberate across the country over the election-heavy next five weeks.

With Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan locked in statistical dead heats in most polls--and former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander close behind--the outcome could hinge on undecided voters, estimated at up to 17% of the electorate.

New Hampshire political experts were steering clear of predictions. "It's just so hard to say," said Charles M. Arlinghaus, head of the Republican State Committee. "Everything is so volatile."

Aside from shaping the remainder of the compressed nomination race--roughly 70% of the GOP convention delegates will have been selected after California holds its primary on March 26--today's results will probably spell the end of the road for some second-tier candidates in the eight-man battle.

First results from the hamlets of Dixville Notch and Hart's Location gave Dole 14 votes, a 1-vote lead over Alexander, very early this morning. Buchanan had 5 and Steve Forbes 4. Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and dropout Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas each had 1, along with a write-in for ex-Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin L. Powell.

The eve of the first-in-the-nation primary--which appropriately fell on the Presidents Day holiday--began with a pancake breakfast straw poll among senior citizens at a local hotel (Buchanan won) and the odd sight of a spatula-wielding Forbes, tentative in a pristine apron.

A small group of angry demonstrators, accusing Buchanan of anti-Semitism and racism, picketed his campaign offices here on Monday, while at appearances throughout a packed last day of campaigning, the conservative commentator said he would not allow "out-of-the-closet homosexuals with a flamboyant lifestyle" in his administration. And he vowed to remake the Republican Party: "We're going to make it working class," he said in a television interview. "We are revolutionaries."

Alexander walked the final leg of his 100-mile odyssey across the Live Free Or Die state, ending up at the edge of the Atlantic Ocean. Dole, his status as the GOP's front-runner now threatened, finished the day with a torchlight parade down the main drag of Milford.

And in keeping with a campaign in which mudslinging itself became an issue, the leading candidates continued to trade shots. Dole's ads target Alexander, while the Tennessean lobbed several rhetorical barbs at the Kansas senator.

As one of the smallest states in the nation prepared to make the biggest splash to date in the 1996 campaign, the stakes were clear. "Historically, the big thing you need to know is that no Republican has been elected president without winning in New Hampshire first," said Arlinghaus.

Along with undecided voters, Mother Nature may play a part: Freezing rain and sleet are expected, which could give Buchanan and his fervent supporters the edge.

"Our people will turn out in any kind of weather," unlike supporters of the other candidates, said Mike Hammond, Buchanan's New Hampshire campaign chairman. "Our people believe passionately."

But Arlinghaus disputes the conventional wisdom that more-mainstream voters don't like to get wet. "A snowstorm helps organized candidates," he said. "Bob Dole has a great organization in this state," spearheaded by popular Gov. Steve Merrill.

Dole himself predicted that the Granite State results would be "not unanimous, but it's going to be a very friendly verdict."

The final polls offered a more muddled picture. Two tracking surveys conducted over the weekend showed Buchanan ahead by a razor-thin margin, one showed Dole leading and another showed the two tied. All showed Buchanan gaining ground, Alexander in third place and Forbes at No. 4.

Buchanan had charged into New Hampshire with momentum gained from his close second-place finish behind Dole in last week's Iowa caucuses. And although he suffered a blow when it was revealed a top aide who is a leading gun-rights advocate has frequently shared podiums with white supremacists, Buchanan's populist economic agenda dominated much of the New Hampshire campaign.

Dole took note of that during a speech at a manufacturer of computer components in Rochester, N.H., on Monday. "I didn't realize that jobs and trade and what makes America work would become a big issue in the last few days of this campaign," he said.

Dole immediately added that it was "fortunate for us" that the state's voters remained focused on the economy and job security. He then called for vigorous free trade with foreign nations and attacked Buchanan's protectionist appeals.

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