Vice President Al Gore has surged past Bill Bradley in New Hampshire while George W. Bush and John McCain remain locked in a step-for-step dead heat there, a new Times Poll has found.
After trailing Bradley in most New Hampshire polls earlier this winter, Gore has consolidated his hold on traditional Democrats while cutting into Bradley's support among less-partisan voters, such as independents, the survey found. Overall, Gore now draws 50% to 41% for Bradley among likely Democratic voters in New Hampshire, which will hold its primary Feb. 1.
The movement toward Gore in New Hampshire follows a Times Poll last week that showed the vice president with a commanding 23-percentage-point lead over Bradley in Iowa, which formally opens the race for the nomination with its precinct caucuses Monday. Gore's rise in the two kickoff contests set up the next eight days as a make-or-break challenge for Bradley, many analysts believe.
"Bradley's problem is that the Democrats are rallying around Gore, who's essentially the incumbent," says Susan Pinkus, director of The Times Poll. "And if Bradley can't shake that soon, he is in a lot of trouble."
On the Republican side, the poll finds the two leaders battling to an absolute draw. Bush and McCain both attract support from 36% of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire and are running even among most of the key demographic groups, men and women, older, younger, and more and less affluent voters.
The one exception to that pattern illuminates a potential wild card in the final stage of the New Hampshire GOP contest. Sen. McCain holds a double-digit advantage among independents and moderate voters, while Bush relies upon a comparable lead among conservatives to remain even overall. If conservatives Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes, who ran second and third in the latest Times Poll in Iowa, come out of that first contest with any momentum, they could pull away votes from Bush on the right--leaving the Texas governor without enough support to offset McCain's strength in the center.
At this point, Forbes draws just 12% in New Hampshire, while Keyes runs fourth with 7%. Sen. Orrin G. Hatch of Utah attracted 2%, while social conservative Gary Bauer received less than 1% in the survey.
The Times Poll, supervised by Pinkus, surveyed 427 likely Democratic primary voters and 516 likely Republican primary voters from Jan. 16 through Thursday; it has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 5 percentage points for the Democrats and 4 points for the Republicans.
As in Iowa, New Hampshire voters seem to be settling on their decisions, though there is still room for final-week turbulence. Just 7% of Republican and 8% of Democratic primary voters say they are undecided. Between 60% and 70% of those backing the leading candidates on each side say they are certain to vote for their choice--leaving about a third in play.
The most unpredictable factor may be the potential for at least some independents--who can vote in either party--to switch between Bradley and McCain, depending on which seems more viable next week. The poll finds that Bradley voters have far more favorable impressions of McCain than they do of Gore. Likewise, McCain voters are far more favorable toward Bradley than Bush.
For nearly the last 50 years, New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary has occupied a privileged position in shaping the race for the White House. Traditionally, its role has been to anoint the finalists in the contest, not necessarily to determine the winner.
This year many analysts believe the state could decide whether a truly competitive race develops at all. With Bush and Gore both attracting so much institutional support and holding such large leads in national surveys, most believe that a New Hampshire loss would not be fatal to either. That's especially so because the New Hampshire electorate, with a disproportionate share of independents and socially liberal upscale white voters, has grown less representative of each party's mainstream.
But victory for Bradley or McCain could provide them with the momentum and media attention to press more serious challenges against the front-runners. Conversely, if McCain or Bradley loses in the state--where they benefit from an electorate sympathetic to their reform politics and have led in many polls since last fall--their insurgencies could be quickly deflated.
The survey finds clear winners in the central policy arguments that are dominating each race--though the effect of those decisions on the vote diverges.
Asked whether they prefer Bradley's sweeping plan to provide health care for the uninsured or Gore's more incremental approach, Democratic primary voters side with the vice president by a decisive 55%-to-34% margin.