Republican presidential candidate Philip M. Crane changed his tactics yesterday and came out swinging against William Loeb, the acerbic New Hampshire newspaper publisher who has run a series of articles portraying Crane as a lusty, hard-drinking playboy.
Crane, a conservative congressman from Illinois, told a news conference in Concord that Loeb's articles constitute "gross violations of the ethics of the journalistic profession and of western civilization."
Crane said the articles in Loeb's Manchester Union Leader were "distortions of truth designed to inflict injury on my wife and children . . . an experience no one can be prepared for."
As that remark suggests, Crane and his family were shaken by the articles. But the candidate had officially ignored them, until yesterday, for fear that striking back at the pugnacious Loeb would be like starting a kicking match with a mule.
Crane and his advisers changed their minds recently, after poll results showed that some readers of the Union Leader, New Hampshire's biggest newspaper, were believing the sensational reports.
In January, before the articles began to appear, Crane's name recognition in the state was below 10 percent - but almost all those who knew of him had a favorable impression. Today his name recognition is about 50 percent, but about half of those who recognize the name disapporve of his candidacy, according to Crane' polls.
In addition, Crane decided to take Loeb on to put some spark into his New Hampshire campaign. The Crane effort has suffered a series of set-backs recently, including the angry resignations of most of the national campaign staff and the revelation of an $800,000 campaign debt.
Every four years, when New Hampshire's presidential primary attracts the nation's attention, Loeb draws a portion of it with withering attacks on one or more candidates.
Crane's political staff is betting that the state's voters are so weary of Loeb's vituperative articles that they will warm to a candidate who challenges the publisher head-on.
That strategy has had mixed results in the past. In 1972, when Sen. Edmund S. Muskie (D-Maine) denounced Loeb articles about himself and his family, the senator became so emotional that he cried. The incident was instrumental in the collapse of Muskie's presidential campaign.
In 1975, though, Democratic Senate candidate John Durkin matched Loeb blast for blast. Durkin won the Senate seat, and guessed later that Loeb's enmity had probably helped him more than it hurt.
One reason Crane thinks he can succeed by fighting back is that the Union Leader's articles on him - anonymous sources - have sparked sympathy for the candidate among political figures and other newspapers here. After Loeb's first Crane articles appeared in March, the New Hampshire House passed a unanimous resolution condemning the publisher, a fairly daring political act for the local officials.
Since March, the Union Leader has run three major articles about Crane's private life and several shorter items. Loeb has said that they are part of a series that will delve into the personal habits of all presidential candidates, but so far the articles on the other Republican hopefuls have not appeared.
Loeb backs Ronald Reagan for the GOP nomination. Crane has been winning some support in New Hampshire from Republicans who favored Reagan in 1976.
The Union Leader's managing editor, Joe McQuaid, said the paper will continue to write about Crane's personal life because, "The voters of New Hampshire have a right to know about the personal habits and bebavior of a man who seeks the highest office." CAPTION: Picture, REP. PHILIP M. CRANE . . . sees "distortions of truth . . ."