By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
MANCHESTER, NEW HAMPSHIREAs the presidential candidates race from the farmlands of Iowa to the bitter cold and snow of the nation's first real primary, the contest for this state's legendary independent voters seems to be coming down to a competition between John McCain and Bill Bradley. Voters here talk repeatedly of crossing party lines to cast ballots for one or the other.
All this despite the much-touted resurgence of Al Gore and the spirited glad-handing by George W. Bush. Despite their big wins in Iowa, Gore still seems too much the technocrat and Bush too superficial for New Hampshire. The two candidates who may yet benefit from the primary are Steve Forbes, whose flat tax message has a strong local appeal, and Alan Keyes, whose surprising third-place finish in Iowa makes him a serious contender for the conservative vote.
While nationally the Republican Party is moving away from tax cuts toward a more nuanced view of surplus economics, in New Hampshire antitax sentiment remains powerful. One need only recall the 1980 primary, when George W.'s father's much maligned "preppie campaign" caught fire in New Hampshire and for a while threatened Ronald Reagan's massive effort. Bush so rattled Reagan that the California governor jettisoned much of his traditional conservative rhetoric and for the first time promoted the supply-side economics of David Stockman. Reagan beat back Bush and won the campaign with that switch.
This year it is McCain who is most in line with the Republican Party's promises to use government surpluses to shore up Social Security and Medicare, and channel what is left into a tax cut. In seeming contrast, Bush promises to pump the surplus into a tax cut, although he leaves himself a big out, noting that surplus funds will be used for a tax cut once the "government does what it's got to do."
Bradley's campaign seeks to chart fresh ground, but it often seems almost wistful and sometimes even sad. Last week, with the press badgering him at every stop about his faltering campaign, Bradley walked into a child-care center in Salem and waded through a gauntlet of reporters to listen intently to two mothers talk about how hard it is to provide health care for their children. Cathy Perry, who has no insurance, described taking her son to a doctor when the youngster had a strep throat. After they left the office, she said the boy told her, "I'm sorry I got sick," because the doctor visit had cost the family money it didn't have.
Although politicians listen over and over to stories like this, the room grew silent as Perry talked. When she finished, Bradley, who had tears in his eyes, struggled to thank her, awkwardly shaking hands. Personally, there is nothing phony about the great basketball star, who was an utterly undistinguished member of the Senate for 16 years. The candidate, who is now running perhaps as much against worries about his own health as against Gore, lists the individuals he most respects as Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and Mikhail Gorbachev. And to those who were brought up on Wilson, or have studied him, it does seem clear that Wilsonian idealism has accounted for much of the energy in Bradley's anti-administration campaign. Reserved, righteous, self-contained, Bradley appeals for the trust of the electorate through the language of idealism. He seeks to "respect the people," to lead "by the power of example." He appeals to the "goodness in most of us."
At the same time, Bradley is practical, a virtue to which New England voters relate. Thus, at a Salem nursing home, he told the residents lined up in wheelchairs before him: "I want to reassure all of you about the stability of Medicare . . . [that you can have] social services at home . . . have the option to stay at home. . . . "
There's little question that Bradley's straightforward statements offer a more fundamental prospect of change on intractable political issues than any of the other candidates. In contrast to Gore's icy and complicated health-care schemes, Bradley says: "I believe every child in America should be guaranteed health insurance." And on guns, "Take on the National Rifle Association. Register and license all handguns."
In the end what appeals to New Hampshire voters about both Bradley and McCain is their independent character. And that could yet make the vote here a wakeup call for the nation.
With the campaign in its final week and John McCain drawing crowds at his town meetings around the state, the negative campaign against him has cranked up on the Web. Disgruntled conspiracists in the POW-MIA camp are slimeballing the former Navy pilot as a self-seeking phony who didn't abide by the military code of conduct in 1967 after he was shot down over Hanoi. They charged that the "crown prince," as they refer to McCain because his father was an admiral in Europe, gave the enemy crucial information in exchange for better treatment and was brainwashed into a Manchurian Candidate.