Ronald Reagan and Philip Crane looked good, Howard Baker was a pleasant surprise, George Bush was a disappointment. But all of these presidential candidates seemed a little off-base in their televised debate Wednesday night -- "they're not dealing on our level."
That observation came from Betty Luce, 50, bookkeeper for the recorder of deeds hereabouts. Luce was one of 17 brentwood Republicans who gathered at the invitation of The Washington Post to watch the debate on television.
Though the 17 had many disagreements, they all seemed to concur in the judgement. They agreed emphatically with Betty Luce's feeling that the candidates and the people are not operating on the same level.
There was nothing scientific about this sampling of Republican opinion. The 17 guests were largely chosen by Olive Tash, the town secretary here, a Democrat. But the group turned out to be representative of Brentwood's divided Republican tradition. In 1976, Reagan and President Ford ran a dead heat here, and last night about half of the guests said they voted for each of them.
Most will go with Reagan this time, or so it appeared Wednesday night. Bush has made only one clear convert in this group, and even she apologized for his performanace in the debate: "I don't think he's a great speaker, but I think he's a very intelligent man," said Jean Rasmussen, 50, a court Stenographer.
"I was disappointed in the way Bush came across tonight. I was very disappointed," said Frank Travis, 48, an engineer at Bell Laboraties in Andover, Mass. Robert Dodge, a deputy sheriff, said the new front-runner had not lived up to his "media buildup."
"Those TV ads [for Bush] are much better," Luce said with a laugh. Others agreed. New England television stations are carrying a heavy dose of slick Bush campaign commercials produced by Robert Goodman of Baltimore.
Whether the disappointment with Bush in this small group is significant for the outcome of Tuesday's New Hampshire primary remains to be seen. A visitor from Washington was struck more by the high level of frustration among these New Hampshire Republicans, and by their desire to make some points that never came up in the League of Women Voters' forum for the presidential candidates.
Only with prodding did these 17 citizens volunteer reactions to the seven candidates they watched intently for 90 minutes. They much preferred general conversation about what is wrong with politics and the country. Here, for example, is Bill Pottle's view:
"The candidates didn't bring out what I think is the problem with the country, and I think the big problem is our court system, beginning with the Supreme Court. We have a Constitution that is written in simple English and we have a bunch of broad bottoms on the Supreme Court who tried to decide 'what else can these simple words mean?' and they shove it down our throats. . . . "
Pottle, 62, a retired engineer, is the "animal officer" -- the dog catcher -- on Brentwood's part-time police force. Several others in the group endorsed his view of the courts.
"Why are the courts setting policy?" asked Dodge, 51, the deputy sheriff. "Because we haven't had leadership in the country to assume responsibility for doing things, so we have left it up to the courts. . . . Nobody wants to accept responsibility for doing anything, so they give it to a bunch of guys in Washington who are not in contact with the real world."
Vic Rasmussen, who is a goal judge for professional hockey games at Boston Garden, offered his analysis:
"The most important thing now is that we get rid of some of these characters in Congress . . . all this hullabaloo over the presidential nomination and everything is nothing unless we change this Congress. These gentlemen [in the debate] were fine, but you can put in any one of them, the way Congress is now, and they'll be the same. Four years from now, we'll all be sitting here saying, where did we go wrong? We can put God Himself in there and it isn't going to do a damm bit of good."
Jonathan Ellis, 32, a newcomer to southern New Hampshire, (a third of the population has moved into this area during the 1970s) and a bank manager in nearby Exeter, said he though "the most important question [posed in the candidates' forum], which didn't get much response at all, was, can the candidates respond to the little person as opposed to the special interests. It's the special interests, I think, that more and more dictate what the Congress does."
O. J. Duff, 42, an engineer and the chairman of the town budget committee in Brentwood, said he thought "they ought to take most of the news media and let them listen, and shut up, and let the people ask the questions to these guys. And then you might get some really pointed questions without a lot of its, ands, buts and ors.
"Like I'd like to get George Bush and ask him, what is the function of the Trilateral Commission? What does it do? Is that where you get all your money? That's what the newspapers are implying right now. That's where Carter got all his money, all his backing.
"You begin to wonder, who is really running the country. I don't think the politicans are really running it. I think the banks are, primarily."
The Trilateral Commission was founded by banker David Rockefeller to promote understanding among the United States, Japan and the nations of Western Europe. Critics see it as a conspiracy among elitists here and abroad to influence government policies.
(Duff's concern about the Trilateral Commission echoes the colorfully expressed opinions of William Loeb, the outspoken, right-wing publisher of the Manchester Union Leader.)
Duff's sense that he did not really know what was going on in the country was an undercurrent that ran through most of the conversation last night in Brentwood's new town office building, where these Republicans gathered.
Bill Thorsell, 30, the town road agent here (who has been having a bad year because of the lack of snow) got into an argument with Pottle, the dog catcher, who defended big oil companies.
Thorsell said he had seen a statement by the deposed shah of Iran that it was the companies which originally pressed for higher oil prices. Thorsell expressed amazement that this allegation was never pursued by the government. "Let's educate the people on oil," he said. "I don't think the American people know that much."
Bob Wilson, who owns and runs the general store in Brentwood, disputed Thorsell: "You can't educate the people on oil, because if you try to tell them the truth about what's happening, they don't want to hear it." The truth, he felt, was that the cost of oil is skyrocketing beyond control of American companies.
There was a broad if vague consensus among these voters as to what the government ought to be doing: spending and taxing less, keeping the country stronger, leaving more to local initiative and dictating less from Washington.
Betty Luce, for example described with exasperation how hard it was for Brentwood to get its share of federal revenue sharing funds because a bureaucrat in Washington would not believe that the town does not have a Zip code. (Having lost the town post office, sections of Brentwood share Zip codees with four neighboring towns.)
But some of these people blamed themselves as well as Washington. "It's a lot easier for these small towns to rely on the federal government," said Norman Luce, 56, a construction superintendent. "It's cheaper for them."
After listening for most of an hour to conversation like this, the visitor from Washington observed that these Republicans in Brentwood seemed to have an agenda that is rarely mentioned in the presidential campaign. The group agreed enthusiastically. "That's why you're here," said Newman Luce, "to take our ideas back to the candidates."
As for the candidates' debate, it did not seem to resolve much for these 17 people. "I didn't know who I was going to vote for before, and I still don't know," said Betty Luce.
"It seemed like they're all pretty much the same,' added Don Tash, 38, a construction engineer and Reagan supporter.
Many agreed with Brentwood's Republican town chairman and senior selectman, Bill Vahey: "I think the big thing was that most of the candidates avoided the questions. I don't think there was one of them that really truthfully answered the questions that were put to them."
Bob Wilson, the storekeeper, said he was still inclined to vote for Reagan, but as a result of the debate, "I have developed more of an interest in Baker than I had before. I had never followed him to any extent, never thought he had any kind of a chance, but I thought he made a lot of sense tonight."
At that remark, Tash said, "Amen."
Wilson said his only doubts about Reagan involved his age (69). But Thorsell, 30, the youngest person in this group, said age did not bother him, "Let's have a one-term president," he said, arguing that Jimmy Carter has been too busy running for reelection to run the country. "Sure Reagan is old, but I know he probably isn't going to make a second term."
Several commented on John Anderson's directness in the forum, but none of these Republicans would endorse his liberal views. One in the audience, Deputy Sheriff Dodge, said he thought Bush sounded a lot like Jimmy Carter four years ago.
There were nice words for Crane from several participants. Pottle, the dog catcher, said he had been pleasantly surprised by John B. Connally. Betty Luce agreed that the Texan had said some good things, but added:
"Connally's background bothers me. A man who can change the way he has -- it's almost like he was an opportunist to me. I just can't believe that this man really believes what he's saying."
Travis, the Bell engineer, evoked broad agreement from the group toward the end of a long evening's talk. He expressed satisfaction that so many republican candidates seemed to share a conservative philosophy that he could embrace.
"I hope," Travis added, "after our primary, or maybe after one or two more, the ones that really aren't going to cut it decided to get out and present a unified public position."