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Votes on future reflect the past

In the first presidential primary, New Hampshire voters will judge candidates' performances up till now.

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By TIM NICKENS

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 1, 2000


CONCORD, N.H. -- When New Hampshire voters go to the polls today in the nation's first presidential primary, they will set the course of the 2000 campaign.

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But in the final days of the race here much of the rhetoric has been about the past as the candidates vie to become the first new president of the third millennium.

In the Democratic primary, Bill Bradley dug up Vice President Al Gore's votes and memos on abortion from the 1980s to question Gore's commitment to abortion rights. He also reminded voters about the 1996 fundraising scandal involving President Clinton and the vice president.

By then, Gore had combed through Bradley's voting record in the Senate on school vouchers, federal aid for Midwest flood victims and welfare reform. At every opportunity, the vice president also takes credit for the soaring economy.

On the Republican side, Texas Gov. George W. Bush touted his record on tax cuts and education even as publisher Steve Forbes criticized it. Arizona Sen. John McCain reminded voters about his record as a war hero, blasted the 1996 fundraising excesses by President Clinton and Gore and suggested that he has far more experience than Bush.

Despite all of the talk about visions for the future, today's primary will be a referendum on how voters like what they see in the rearview mirror.

"That always happens when the races get tight," Linda Fowler, director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and Civic Leadership at Dartmouth College, said Monday. "It's a way of being negative about a candidate without attacking them as a person."

And both of today's primaries are expected to be close.

The University of New Hampshire's tracking polls on Monday showed McCain ahead of Bush, 41 percent to 35 percent. Forbes was far behind in third at 18 percent. The margin of error was 4 percentage points.

In the Democratic primary, Gore led Bradley 51 percent to 45 percent, with just 4 percent undecided. The margin of error was 5 percentage points.

"It's going to come down to turnout," said Andrew Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center.

He said a high turnout would indicate more ballots were cast by independent voters, who outnumber either Republicans or Democrats here and can vote in either primary. Smith said that would help McCain, because Bush leads McCain 44 percent to 32 percent among Republicans.

The UNH survey shows Gore and Bradley are roughly dividing independent voters in the Democratic primary. That is bad news for Bradley, who has been running against Gore's establishment campaign.

Some independent voters still had not made up their mind Monday about which candidate to support or even which party's primary they will choose.

Standing outside the golden-domed state Capitol in Concord at a McCain rally, Pat Andrus said she was leaning toward Gore. But she might vote for McCain.

"I think this year we have the finest crop of candidates we have ever had," the Concord teacher said.

Ending on an upbeat note, the candidates avoided new attacks Monday and were more interested in getting on television.

Bush and conservative activist Gary Bauer flipped pancakes, and the Texas governor went sledding on several inches of fresh snow. Bradley bought a snow shovel and cleared a sidewalk. Forbes telephoned voters while the cameras rolled, and Gore campaigned in storefronts.

But there were still more sound bites about the past than the future.

As several of his children played in a snow pile outside the state Capitol, McCain aimed more at Gore than at Bush. The Arizona senator mocked the vice president's initial claim that he did not know his 1996 visit to a Buddhist temple was a fundraiser and that there was "no controlling legal authority" that addressed it.

"I am going to give him "controlling legal authority,' and I am going to make what they did illegal," said McCain, a champion of fundraising reforms.

His comments about Bush's lack of experience were more veiled. McCain said voters can send a message that the country wants someone "fully prepared to lead the United States, and there will be no on-the-job training."

Bush, meanwhile, continued to question McCain's Republican credentials because of McCain's commitment to campaign reforms and small tax cuts. "We don't need a candidate who sounds like Al Gore," Bush said.

At a renovated old opera house in Derry, Bradley also adopted a less confrontational approach. He said Gore had attacked him -- but nothing like Boston Celtics broadcaster Johnny Most did when Bradley played for the New York Knicks.

"The old politics is 1,000 attacks in campaigns with 1,000 promises to whoever to do whatever," Bradley said. "Just remember if a candidate doesn't trust people enough to tell them the truth, what are the chances that candidate will tell them the truth if they become president of the United States?"

Gore, who harshly criticized Bradley's record and health care proposals last week, passed up invitations to repeat the attacks Monday.

The prospects for both Bradley and McCain depend on how well they have sold voters that their pasts would make them better presidents than their favored opponents. Both say they will stay in the race if they lose today, but their chances of winning the nomination of their respective parties would be even dimmer.

Bradley, who lost badly to Gore in the Iowa caucuses last week, had more money at the beginning of the year than Gore. But he needs a win today to make a push toward March 7, when more than a dozen states hold primaries.

McCain skipped the Iowa caucuses and bet everything on New Hampshire. He thinks if he defeats Bush today, he would build enough momentum to come from behind and win the next major GOP contest, Feb. 19 in South Carolina.

"He's got to win," said Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who campaigned with McCain on Monday. "Not a perceived win. He's got to win one more vote than anybody else."

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