On the surface, everything would seem to be coming up roses in New Hampshire for Republican presidential candidate George Bush.
He has won the Iowa caucuses where Ronald Reagan was favored and the Puerto Rico primary where Howard Baker was considered a threat. He draws large crowds wherever he goes. His organization is ahead of the pack. By all outward measures, Bush would appear to be a rising candidate and Reagan a fading one.
But with a week to go before the New Hampshire primary there are danger signals -- reminiscent of what happened in North Carolina before Reagan upset President Ford four years ago -- that are beginning to disturb the euphoria of the Bush camp.
One of these signals, unpublicized in New Hampshire, is the result of Bush's telephone campaign in Concord, a moderate GOP city that went heavily for Ford over Reagan the last time and is a prime Bush target area this time.
Only one-sixth of the voters reached by the telephone campaigners say they are supporting Bush. Another one-sixth favor some other candidate, usually Reagan, and the remaining two-thirds are uncommitted. In 1976, Ford led Reagan by a 2-to-1 margin in a similar phone survey.
The five polls known to have been taken -- for two newspapers, two candidates, and a university -- all put the contest between Bush and Reagan so close that it is within the margin of error of each poll.
The latest survey, a telephone poll of 1,320 potential voters by University of New Hampshire political scientists David W. Moore and Robert E. Craig, shows Bush with 37 percent and Reagan with 33 percent among likely voters. Far back are Baker, with 10 percent, John B. Anderson, 5 percent, John B. Connally, 2 percent, and Philip Crane and Bob Cole, each with less than 1 percent.
"Our margin of error is five points and this is a dead heat as far as I'm concerned," said Craig.
Other data in the poll suggests that Bush supporters may be vulnerable to Reagan's appeal. Bush and Reagan have comparable support among the majority of New Hampshire Republicans who classify themselves as conservative, but the conservatives have been targeted by the Reagan camp and by the pro-Reagan Manchester Union Leader.
"[Publisher William] Loeb knows what he's doing," says Craig.
What Loeb is doing, everyday in every way he can, is portraying Bush as a squishy-soft liberal posing as a conservative.
Bush is trying not to respond, hoping that Republicans will consider the source. In fact, Bush is doing nothing this week except preparing for two New Hampshire debates, one Wednesday night in Manchester with all the GOP candidates and one Saturday night in Nashua with Reagan.
It is an anomaly of the New Hampshire campaign that neither Reagan nor Bush have a single planned event other than the debates within the state before next Monday. In Reagan's case, this sceduling reflects a desire to allow his organization which has been strained by the logistics of moving him around New Hampshire on a daily basis to concentrate on get-out-the-vote efforts.
Bush's managers believe he "won" the Jan. 5 Iowa debate principally because Reagan ducked it. They would like to have their candidate give a crisper performance Wednesday night.
But while the five other candidates took potshots at the absent Reagan in Iowa, they now are more likely to concentrate their fire on Bush. Baker's press secretary, Tom Griscom, says it is necessary for the Tennessee senator to draw issues distinctions with Bush, "because Bush is the front-runner and because more of our vote is likely to come from his supporters than anywhere else."
This perception reflects the raised expectations now confronting Bush in New Hampshire. Having demonstrated that he can spectacularly as a dark horse, Bush now becomes the candidate to beat.The debates this week are likely to show whether he is up to the pressure of that position.