New Hampshire's vituperative newspaper editor, William Loeb, took his first detailed look at the 1980 presidential campaign yesterday, prompting cries of outrage, official denunciation, and an internecine squabble within the Republican Party's right wing.
In a front-page editorial and a set of stories that were harsh even by Loeb's acerbic standards, his Manchester Union Leader charged that GOP presidential candidate Rep. Philip Crane (R-Ill.) conceals a playboy's fondness for women and whiskey beneath his clean-cut outward appearance.
Crane, who was stunned by the reports, which he forcefully denied, blamed the stories on aides to his toughest presidential rival, Ronald Reagan. Crane dashed off a letter pleading with Reagan to "investigate your staff to find the person or persons involved and dismiss them."
Reagan, who was campaigning in New York, responded with a chilly statement saying, in effect, that Crane should put up or shut up.
Reagan said he had telephoned Crane and told him "none of my staff is in any way responsible for the articles. Secondly, I told Congressman Crane that if he had any evidence to the contrary it was his responsibility to get it to me personally."
Crane said a Union Leader reporter who interviewed him Wednesday told him some of the charges in the controversial stories had come from Reagan aides and supporters.
The reporter, Jonathan Prestage, said yesterday that most of the sources for his reports were conservative Republican political operatives, and that group necessarily included Reagan supporters.
The Union Leader stories, which ran under such headlines as "Clean Cut Conservative? or Party Playboy?" and "Rep. Crane Deemed a Failure," showed up on New Hampshire's newsstands yesterday just as Crane was arriving for a campaign swing that included an address before the state House of Representatives yesterday.
The stories were denounced by legislators of both parties, and the House speaker won approval of a resolution condemning Loeb and apologizing to Crane. The resolution described the Union Leader's stories as "134 inches of totally unsubstantiated allegations."
New Hampshire is the site of the nation's earliest presidential primary election, which has made it an important hunting ground for Crane, Reagan, and other Republican hopefuls. The presidential politicking provides a perfect target for Loeb in his position as editor of the state's largest newspaper.
Every four years the crusty editor gains national attention by pouring editorial vitriol on candidates he opposes. Sometimes he chooses to attack the politicians' wives as well; Jane Muskie, wife of the Maine senator, and former first lady Betty Ford have been Loeb targets.
In the stories and editorial printed yesterday -- which Loeb said were the first of a series of "in-depth" reports on current presidential hopefuls -- the Union Leader accused Crane's wife, Arlene, of some of the same behavior it attributed to the candidate.
Although Loeb seems to agree with many of Crane's conservative beliefs, the editor has been increasingly criticae for seeking the 1980 GOP nomination. Loeb's position is that Crane will drain conservative votes from Reagan, whom the Union Leader has supported so far.
Most of the Union Leader's reporting on Crane's personal life yesterday involved generalized observations from sources who were not named. The paper also ran a story stating that Crane has not been an important force on the House subcommittees he serves on.
The Union Leader published an interview with Philip and Arlene Crane in which the couple expressed disbelief at the charges the paper had compiled. "I challenge anyone to give me some single incident that would indicate that any of this is true," the congressman was quoted as saying.