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Weather Puts Chill on N.H. Politicking

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sunday night was to have been the unofficial opening of the New Hampshire Republican primary race, with nine GOP contenders gathered at a state party dinner here to showcase their political wares.

The dinner would have been the first occasion at which all the major candidates were able to project their messages to a statewide television audience and 1,000 of the party faithful paying $150 each for dinner and political entertainment.

Instead, the paralyzing blizzard in Washington stranded several of the leading candidates and left the race in virtually the same shape it was in before the abbreviated Sunday night event at the Manchester Holiday Inn.

One of those who made it, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, wisecracked at a news conference: “I hear some of the others may be stuck in Washington,” referring in particular to Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas. “It won’t be the first time.”

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Alexander has been trying to make an impact here with the plea that he’s the only true outsider in the race and the candidate with the best chance of beating President Clinton.

But even his state campaign chairman, Concord lawyer and party activist Tom Rath, admits that Alexander has yet to break through.

“We haven’t done much to move the horse race,” Rath conceded in an interview last week, noting that the Feb. 20 New Hampshire primary is a scant six weeks away. “We’re at that point in the campaign when we have to stop saying what we’re going to do and go out and do it.”

Meanwhile, political commentator Patrick J. Buchanan aired his first television advertisement of the season Sunday. In it, he says that like his former bosses, Presidents Nixon and Reagan, he would not compromise his conservative principles.

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“I’ve never been afraid to speak my mind,” Buchanan says in the spot. “I will never be afraid to lead.”

Also on Sunday, magazine publisher Steve Forbes, another contender for the GOP presidential nomination, appeared to shift his stance on his proposal to replace the income tax system with a single-rate “flat tax” with almost no deductions.

On NBC-TV’s “Meet the Press,” Forbes said that it might be a “political necessity” to rewrite the plan to cut the exemption it provides for all income from interest, dividends, rents and royalties.

He was answering critics who contend that the flat tax, coupled with an investment income exemption, would provide a windfall for those like himself who inherited great wealth.

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The New Hampshire dinner followed by a day a forum in Columbia, S.C., where six candidates appeared and aimed much of their fire at Dole.

Assessments of where the race stands today in New Hampshire are surprisingly consistent at each of the major campaign offices.

Dole is the clear front-runner, according to recent public and private polls, with about 30% of the vote. Forbes, Buchanan, Gramm and Alexander are bunched together far behind, each with about 8% to 10% support.

The current consensus is that Forbes is in second place, by virtue of his saturation advertising campaign, although many contend that his luster is fading because he has done almost no personal campaigning in a state that expects to see every candidate in its metaphoric--or real--living room.

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“It’s Dole’s to lose, I mean big time,” said Dick Bennett of the American Research Group polling service in Manchester. “I see Dole just trouncing everybody.

“Maybe somebody will emerge from the pack,” he said. He noted, however, that in previous races where front-runners were surprised, there was a single serious challenger. He cited the 1988 race, when Dole ran neck and neck with then-Vice President George Bush, and 1984, when then-Sen. Gary Hart nearly toppled front-runner Walter F. Mondale.

“I hate to say that Dole is inevitable because of the history of New Hampshire,” Bennett said. “But if Forbes or Alexander or whoever were going to move on Dole, they would have moved on him long ago.”


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