The main issues of America's first state presidential primary are resounding through the motel ballroom, as the Gun Owners of New Hampshire are giving John B. Anderson a mixed greeting.
Half of the crowd of more than 1,000 is shouting "Booooo!" The other half is shouting, "Bull----."
Sitting on the dais, George Bush is going to school on John Anderson's lesson. This is a night when he will have to face two of what have become the pivotal issues of the New Hampshire primary: gun control and Bush's former membership in the Trilateral Commission.
Bush has seen the reaction Anderson drew by saying that "I have no quarrel with the legitimate sportsman and hunter . . . but there is a case that can be made for limiting cheap Saturday night specials."
When it is Bush's turn to speak, well down into the list of 10 candidates who are attending, Bush will immediately take the defensive by explaining how he had really voted for three conservative-sponsored amendments before voting in favor of a 1963 bill that limited interstate mail of most rifles and rifle ammunition.
The audience will accord Bush a merciful silence in response.
In New Hampshire, the presidential primary campaign is being dominated by issues such as gun control, the Trilateral Commission and abortion. They are essentially issues of non-governments, having little to do with the way the presidency is conducted. But they are at the heart of political negativism, and they are the sort of issues that can galvanize loyalists to come out even in the most severe snowstorms to vote against a candidate.
Ronald Reagan and President Carter are currently the beneficiaries of these issues of negative politics, as advisers to both Bush and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy privately express concern at the way these emotion-seizing issues have caught fire -- fueled by front-page and editorial bombasts from William Loeb's right-wing Manchester Union Leader newspaper.
At the gun owners' affair Monday night, the forces that have been at work in New Hampshire's presidential primary were there for all to see, collected in a single hall and magnified in intensity.
As Anderson had just sturred the audience to vocalizing, Richard Marple, secretary of the Gun Owners of New Hampshire, is standing in the rear of the room offering a political observation. "That Mr. Anderson has just indicted himself," says Marple. Marple is a man who says he enjoys Archie Bunker's television show; he shares with the star a certain philosophy, countenance and elocution, and now he is striving to say the worst possible thing he can think of about what Anderson has just said.
"That touches a raw nerve -- I mean, I've even heard Kennedy talk better than that," says Marple. And this is going some for Marple, because he is also the secretary-treasurer of a group called "Go Against Kennedy," which is filling the state with leaflets and bumper strips and radio commercials urging a vote against Kennedy, charging that he wants to take people's guns away.
Kennedy is painfully aware of the political impact of Marple's efforts. He has been bombarded with questions in this state about his stand on gun control and fears he may have erred by skipping the gun owners' meeting in Concord.
At one point today, he pulled out Carter's 1976 gun control statements and read it to the paperworkers in northern New Hampshire, saying, "There isn't a darned bit of difference between us." But aides say the issue is cutting significantly against Kennedy.
The gun owners in the audience cheer lustily for Ronald Reagan, who tells them he is a fellow member of the National Rifle Association and for Phillip Crane, who told them "The Saturday night special is primarily used by gangsters and cheap crooks, but it [the position to gun control legislation] is a principle and you dare not compromise with a principle."
In an interview Monday, Bush maintained that there are no issues that will be decisive in the Republican primary election. But he is aware that Reagan portrays him throughout the state as having voted for gun control. And so he tells the gun owners about how when gun control legislation came up while he was in Congress, he voted with their Republican congressmen for conservative amendments that would have provided mandatory sentencing for those who committed a federal felony while illegally possessing a gun. "When that was knocked out I was not in favor of that legislation, Bush says.
That is not officially documented, however. Actually, in 1968, the Congressional Record shows that Bush voted for the final legislation containing the conservative amendments in the House of Representatives; but when the measure came out of the House-Senate conference committee without these amendments, Bush was one of 141 members of Congress who did not vote on the final measure. There is no official record that he opposed this measure.
Reagan also tells audiences, when he is asked, and somebody apparently sees to it that he is frequently asked, that he favors a constitutional amendment to prohibit abortions while Bush does not. This is accurate. Bush has instead staked out a position similar to that of Carter's, personally opposing abortion and governmentally opposing any federal funding of abortions, but urging that the issue not be made part of the Constitution.
When one member of the audience asked Bush about his former membership in the Trilateral Commission (it is a matter that comes up at most of Bush's campaign appearances), Bush responded that this was not an organization that favored a central world government, and that one of Reagan's friends and suppoprters, Casper Weinberger, was a member of the group.
"For anyone to think that I would belong to any organization that advocates a one-world government is absolutely absurd," Bush says -- but the audience drowns out the rest of his answer with a loud chorus of boos. (The Trilateral Commission was founded by banker David Rockefeller to promote understanding among the United States, Japan and the nations of Western Europe.)
And in the rear of the hall, Richard Marple shouts out that the Trilateral Commission was "elitist" and that it was out to promote "economic enslavery." And leter, when the booing has stopped, Marple suggests that there is a passage in "James" David Thoreau's Walden Pond that aptly sums up how he and his fellow New Hampshire conservatives feel.
He says: "You know Walden Pond? It has a paraphrase in it -- I don't remember it exactly -- about how if do-gooders come to do good to me, I don't want that good done to me. That is beautiful -- It's my semtiments precisely -- but I just don't have a memory to commit that to."