SUNAPEE, N.H. -- Rep. Jack Kemp is close to becoming the clear conservative option in New Hampshire but certainly is not there yet, as reflected by two party activists who saw him address a Sullivan County Republican reception here.
''Bush is a wimp,'' Gertrude Rowe told us. Katharine Cooeshall said, ''I just don't care for Dole personally.'' Fervent admirers of Ronald Reagan, Henry Hyde and Ollie North, they came here seeking a right-wing messiah. They nodded in agreement when Kemp assailed high taxes and communism and plumped for SDI and the contras. Yet, they left as they arrived: uncommitted and wanting to hear more. ''We're still looking,'' Gertrude Rowe concluded.
Kemp's strategists in the state call the two women typical of many conservative Republicans -- including Sen. Gordon Humphrey. Kemp fills the Manchester Union-Leader's ideological bill, but that pugnacious right-wing newspaper has not yet and may never endorse him.
The problem is Jack Kemp's own. Although his positions fit New Hampshire Republicanism, he has not fully mastered the mechanics of running for president. He has made strides, but still has not disciplined himself to the rigidly formatted stump speech.
Nor has he been as tough on Vice President George Bush and Sen. Robert J. Dole as his managers want. He has to be disciplined and combative in a state that is dangerous for Bush and Dole but indispensable for Kemp.
Early polls show only that New Hampshire Republicans are not sure. For all of Bush's name identification, organization and muscular support from Gov. John Sununu, he has no better than 25 percent support. Kemp and Dole are about even, far behind the vice president.
What cheers the Kemp camp is that Dole, characteristically, has dropped out of an ideological battle for the Right and has resumed his image as pragmatist for all philosophies. His key supporters include such stalwarts of the New Hampshire party's Rockefeller wing as ex-governor Walter Peterson and ex-representative Perkins Bass.
They were inherited by Dole from Howard Baker's aborted campaign, as was Sen. Warren Rudman (whose prospective endorsement is certain). But Rudman's performance in the Iran-contra hearings has anathematized him on the Right.
The Dole-Rudman emphasis on deficit reduction can hardly compete with Kemp's self-portrayal as a ''heavily armed dove'' who takes ''the pledge against any tax increase.'' ''New Hampshire Republicans only care about communism and taxes,'' Kemp's state chairman, former state supreme court chief justice Chuck Douglas, told us.
Where Kemp falls short for Douglas is in his unwillingness to mix it up. Under staff prodding, Kemp opened a three-day swing through New Hampshire by sniping at Dole's conditional support of an oil import tax. After one day, Douglas and national campaign consultant Roger Stone were unhappy.
Why, they asked Kemp over dinner, not hit Bush and Dole on the issues? When he calls himself ''the only candidate who does not believe in cutting back Social Security,'' why not name the vice president and Senate minority leader as those who do? Because it's too early, the congressman replied. The next day he mentioned Bush not at all and Dole only fleetingly (in connection with the oil import tax).
Actually, conservatives such as Union-Leader Publisher Nackey Loeb are well aware of the Bush-Dole record. Each has failed in courting the newspaper's support. In a chat with us, Loeb said no announced candidate ''can fill the shoes of President Reagan.'' She regarded ex-senator Paul Laxalt, an old friend, as out of contention even before he quit. She is intrigued by Pierre du Pont's new domestic conservatism, but worries about him on foreign policy, and would be interested in Jeane Kirkpatrick if she ran.
Why not Kemp? He has not entranced Nackey Loeb, who says voters see him trying to ''cram his views down their throats.'' By widespread testimony, however, Kemp has improved. Supporters are grateful he has virtually discarded gold standard talk, focusing on defense, taxes and the family.
He still has not managed the presidential candidate's ultimate self-discipline: mind-numbing repetition of an unvarying campaign speech. Content and quality of Kemp's speeches vary. He wowed a Laconia ''recruitment'' luncheon but that night at a Tuftonboro reception disappointed supporters by digressing into old football stories. Established as the clearest advocate of the Right, Kemp must still convince conservative voters that he is presidential.