It’s Perseverance Month at Fairgrounds Elementary School, and the girls and boys of Mrs. Buerger’s fifth-grade class had a little lesson for George W. Bush, who stopped by Thursday.
“When I was learning how to Rollerblade,/I would walk, not glide,/I would fall, not skate,/I was slow, not swift,/but I kept on trying,” said Cris Richiez, 11, reading from his own poem at a school assembly. “Finally, I got the hang of it.”
Out of the mouths of babes. Now listen to what comes out of the mouth of Bush: “This is Preservation Month,” he said, unaware that he was not quite correct. “I appreciate preservation. It’s what you do when you run for president. You gotta preserve.”
Perseverance, preservation, it doesn’t really matter; he needs to do both as he stumps his way through snowy New Hampshire in the days before the state’s crucial primary, coming off his win in Iowa and facing his first big challenge. And at the moment, Bush’s mettle is being tested.
Compared to rival John McCain, who turned his back on the Iowa caucuses to dedicate himself to New Hampshire, many of Bush’s crowds here have been small. His occasional tendency for verbal missteps has intensified as the campaign pace has quickened. Some of his speeches have rambled, and he remains No. 2 in the polls here.
Until Thursday night, when Bush filled an Amherst school auditorium, there has been little sense of a surge, of the energy the national front-runner needs for a vault to victory in Tuesday’s vote--and the quick end he’d like to put on the GOP nominating contest.
Besides the prospect of an elongated fight with McCain, a Bush loss here would likely raise questions about his candidacy, undermining the Texas governor’s supposed inevitability. And his performance on the stump in New Hampshire could spark doubts about his ability to rally from adversity.
For now, though it’s just one day at a time, which is, after all, the soul of perseverance. This day, Bush gets a boost with the endorsement of Jack Kemp, the GOP’s 1996 vice presidential candidate. Wednesday it was a plug from former rival Orrin G. Hatch, the senator from Utah.
Karen Hughes, Bush’s communications director, figures many New Hampshire voters were waiting until the Wednesday night debate to focus on Bush--who is a front-runner nationally but the underdog here.
“Beginning with the debate last night, we feel the momentum has shifted toward Gov. Bush,” she said. “We feel that people have begun to make up their minds. We feel Gov. Bush clearly defined the issues.”
Every day, of course, Bush talks of cutting taxes. But these days, as he battles a cold, there’s just as much talk of home.
“I gotta tell you,” he drawls at a GOP breakfast in Concord, where seats go begging for loyal Republicans, “I love campaigning but I miss my family. I miss my house. I miss where I live. I miss the routines that I guess I’d taken for granted for a long time. This is the longest stretch of time I’ve been away from my family.”
Audiences are polite, maybe even sympathetic, to the man who yearns to feed his cats and dog, who wants to be president, the one who campaigned flat out for a win in Iowa only to land here, exhausted, at 2:30 a.m. Tuesday. The crowd was thin, larded with staff members and volunteers. He exhorted them to “go home and get some rest.”
Part of McCain’s lead, he told reporters Thursday morning, “has to do with the fact that he skipped Iowa and has spent a lot of time here. He’s been working hard. But there’s a lot of people [who] haven’t made up their minds yet. I think I’ve got a good chance.”
The most recent daily tracking polls show Bush behind McCain here by from five to seven percentage points, with Steve Forbes running a distant third. McCain’s margin certainly can be overcome, but one of the new polls contains a disturbing trend for Bush.
Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire survey center, says Bush consistently has lagged behind McCain among independent, undeclared voters. Now, Smith says, his most recent tracking polls show Bush has lost his previous edge over McCain among those registered Republicans who are most likely to vote.
That means, Smith says, that Bush “has nothing to fall back on. He’s losing to McCain among all voters . . . . He’s got some serious problems.”
Those problems showed up this week at campaign events. A Tuesday night reception in Manchester drew about 75 people; the campaign blamed bad weather. Breakfasts like the one in Concord and a Greater Nashua Chamber of Commerce event Thursday were sold out but sported empty chairs--an unusual turn for a candidate who, on the fund-raising circuit last year, routinely was met by overflow crowds.
Donnalee Lozeau, deputy speaker of the New Hampshire House of Representatives, is torn between Bush and McCain; the race, she says, is “going to be close.”
“McCain moved in” to New Hampshire, she says at the Nashua fete. “He’s been running for a long time. . . . Bush is at a disadvantage. He didn’t get here first.”
Indeed, McCain has campaigned in New Hampshire for more than a year, visiting more than 30 times and holding more than 100 town hall meetings. And this week, with the exception of one bad snow day, he has been drawing big audiences.
If anything, McCain crowds swelled Thursday as he held five town hall meetings along New Hampshire’s coast. At Nashua High School, the day’s final appearance, a crowd of about 600 packed the cafeteria. Many had stood patiently waiting as McCain ran 30 minutes late.
Bush, on the other hand, drew his first big post-Iowa crowd at Souhegan High School in Amherst Thursday night, an enthusiastic audience that made up for some of the polite but unpersuaded groups he’d faced earlier in the week here.
Previously, his biggest audience came at Fairgrounds School as he chatted about perseverance (yes, he finally got it right). But the 500 or so children won’t be going to the polls any time soon.
They did, however, make a lovely television backdrop, a guarantee that Bush’s verbal misstep--an echo of his father’s famously fractured syntax--would travel far beyond school walls.
Bush traditionally stumbles most when he’s most tired, like the time he spoke of enemies and the Cold War late one evening at a junior college in Sioux City, Iowa. “When I was coming up,” he said, “it was a dangerous world, but we knew exactly who the they were. It was us versus them and it was clear who them was. Today, we’re not so sure who the they are, but we know they’re there.”
But as he told the children, there’s only one thing a presidential candidate can do, or maybe two: Preserve his lead in other states. And persevere here in New Hampshire.
Times staff writer T. Christian Miller with the McCain campaign contributed to this story.
Times photos and updates from New Hampshire are available online: https://www.latimes.com/elect2000
* COURSE CORRECTIONS
In New Hampshire, Forbes’ message shifts while Bradley’s tone toughens. A24