Here came Alexander Haig, the retired four-star general, the man who wants to be President, picking gingerly among dozens of blue-collar bowlers in his fancy tweed jacket and brown wing-tips.
“Do you know who I am?” he barked in his military baritone to a young man minding his own business at Stadium Ten Pins.
“No,” the man replied.
“Al Haig!” the general bellowed, and moved away. The man, blushing, showed not a flicker of recognition.
Alexander M. Haig Jr. wanted to be the Republican Party’s conscience this political year, the Republican unafraid to let loose on Ronald Reagan, the Republican daring enough to blame the nation’s massive deficit not on the Democrats but on his own party, the Republican who blew the 11th Commandment by castigating Vice President George Bush in a nationally televised debate.
What he has become, if a three-day venture across New Hampshire this week provides an indication, is the Republicans’ Rodney Dangerfield, the commander of a campaign that gets no respect.
Voters didn’t ask him about nuclear warfare. They asked him to put a bowling alley in Concord. And that was when they asked at all.
As an icy wind blasted the gate of a manufacturing plant in Nashua, thrusting wind-chill temperatures to the minus-30 range, Haig stood surrounded by aides who protected him from falling snow with their umbrellas. Other aides fished in the stream of departing workers. “Would you like to speak to Gen. Haig?” they asked.
“No,” came the reply, over and over. Eventually, Haig came to the gate himself and glad-handed a bit before retreating to the warmth of his sedan.
Haig’s campaign is an odd mix of damn-the-torpedoes bluntness and uncomfortable--and sometimes nervy--politicking.
June Dawson, the mother of five grown children, greeted Haig at the Manchester bowling alley with a chilly assessment of his fortunes.
“You know the problem? There’s too many people running,” she said bluntly, without so much as a how-do-you-do.
‘They’re All Jerks’
Al Haig leaned over and chortled: “They’re all jerks.”
At an Elm Street doughnut shop earlier in the day, Haig ambled up to a pair of men eating doughnuts and, as he is wont to do, asked the obvious.
“Having a doughnut?”
To a fat woman seated across the room, he smiled: “Bet you come in here a lot.”
Unmiffed, she grinned and said: “Good luck.”
It is not always a one-way street. Odd things also tend to spring from the mouths of voters approached by Haig.
“Got an election coming up!” Haig called to two teen-agers walking outside the Space Center video games store in Manchester. One boy dropped into a dead-on impersonation of Ronald Reagan, bobbing his head and huskily intoning: “Well, to tell you the truth. . . .”
In a doughnut shop, Robert Singer of Manchester put his arm on Haig’s and, his voice fully serious, asked the candidate a question.
“Tell me. If you were elected President, would you pick Nixon as vice president?” Haig, Richard M. Nixon’s White House chief of staff in the months preceding his post-Watergate resignation, was rendered speechless. “Ohhh, ohhh,” he said for several seconds.
One potential voter approached Haig at the bowling alley and asked if she could be his vice president. Another grasped Haig’s hand and snapped: “The only reason I want to shake your hand is someone just got a strike from shaking your hand. Maybe it’ll work for me too,” she said. It didn’t.
Still Low in Polls
Haig needs New Hampshire, and desperately. His name rarely surfaces above 5% in voter preference polls here, and he is widely ignored by traditional kingmakers and ordinary voters. Yet he has written off campaigning in Iowa in favor of setting up almost permanent residence in New Hampshire. His aides say the odds are better here than in a caucus state.
He intends to spend nearly 20 days here in January and another 10 in the two weeks before the Feb. 16 primary. His strategy calls for a third-place-or-better finish that will somehow cast him as a winner going in to the subsequent Southern primaries.
This week, his attempted advances were confounded. On Monday, the first day of his trip, his campaign entourage pulled up to the Westside Community Center in Derry. Haig bounded out of his car, headed for an appearance before the business-minded Derry Rotary Club.
Unfortunately for him, it meets on Jan. 28. On Dec. 28, a month early, there were only a dozen senior citizens at the center, in differing states of lucidity, finishing their lunches.
Keeping Backdrops Orderly
The same day, on a walk down Elm Street in Manchester, a network television team shadowed Haig as he marched from one storefront business to another. Two campaign aides carrying red-and-blue “Haig” signs scurried to and fro, trying to form a backdrop for the filming.
“Gentlemen, on the candidate is where you should be,” a stern David Young, chairman of Haig’s New Hampshire steering committee, lectured the sign carriers. “That,” he said, pointing to Haig, “is the candidate.”
Haig does not always help his own cause. Fond of spouting slogans--"You vote for me, Haig and Haig, the real McCoy” is one curious favorite--he sometimes seems reluctant to engage in serious discussions.
At one stop, he brushed off Manchester resident Olive LeClair’s concern about military pensions with a nod and the comment: “Look, I’m on retirement myself.”
In Concord, he unveiled his plan for health care, advocating a presidential commission to study such concerns, urging formation of tax-deductible “medical IRAs” and vowing to revise tax codes to give breaks to insurance companies that offer long-term health policies.
Not Aware of Financial Impact
But although he repeatedly warns of the dangers posed by the deficit, he has said he has no idea of the financial impact of his programs. Challenged at a later forum on the same subject, he countered: “What I put together is the refined observations of an old soldier.”
But Haig is unlikely to fade away just yet. He came up with one of the more memorable lines of the Dec. 1 candidates’ debate when he pressed Bush to define his role in the Administration’s decision to sell arms to Iran. Playing on Bush’s common references to himself as Reagan’s “co-pilot,” Haig asked: “Were you in the cockpit, or were you on an economy ride in the back of the plane?”
Haig has also been aggressive in newspaper advertisements in New Hampshire. Separate ads--headlined in prizefight-size type, “Haig vs. Kemp” and “Haig vs. Bush"--contrasted his background with those of New York Rep. Jack Kemp and Bush.
Tweaks Both Bush, Kemp
On his latest trip, he tweaked the two without naming them, suggesting that Bush was a nonentity in the Administration and blaming Kemp and his fellow supply-sider economics advocates for the nation’s deficit.
Haig’s communications director, Daniel S. Mariaschin, said Haig is in the race because he “feels he is best suited to deal with this interdependent world.”
Haig had another, whimsical reason the day he met a dozen senior citizens at what was to have been the Derry Rotary meeting.
“You have to be a little crazy to do it, and I fit the criteria,” he joshed. “I need my head examined.”