KEENE, N.H., OCT. 26 -- After bouncing through 26 events in 88 hours, using chartered helicopters and planes to stay on schedule as he raced from bowling in Manchester to bingo in Berlin, with at least 18 speeches in between, Sen. Paul Simon was tired.
Even his trademark bow tie was drooping when he finished his talk this noon at Keene State College. The Illinois Democrat's deep voice was hoarse and flat. He slogged through his standard stump speech without eliciting a single burst of applause from the 250 students and townspeople, then perked up and scored several points in the question period.
Despite the less than overwhelming reaction here and at several stops Monday on the seacoast, Simon and his strategists said they were confident that the marathon effort -- which began with a school address and home reception Friday night in Concord -- had established him as a strong competitor in the Feb. 16 leadoff primary.
"I'd fool myself to say I'm going to finish first here," Simon said in an interview as the tour ended. "But I feel we've established a base in New Hampshire from which we can continue to gain solidly, steadily, if not dramatically."
The trip, on which Simon was joined by his wife Jeanne and son Mark, was the longest and most intense of any candidate here this fall. Simon, a late entrant, neglected New Hampshire while concentrating on summer organizing for the Feb. 8 Iowa caucuses, where he is generally rated in the first tier of contenders (closely bunched with Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis).
"New Hampshire calls for a very different strategy," said Brian Lunde, Simon's national campaign manager. "Where you have a real front-runner, the game is to position yourself as the alternative. We want to come out of the box very fast and get ourselves in a position to inherit any drop-off from Dukakis."
The perception in New Hampshire -- backed by results of the town caucuses 10 days ago -- is that Gephardt and former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt, both of whom began organizing many months ago, have established themselves as Dukakis' main challengers in the early going, with Simon, Sen. Albert Gore Jr. and Jesse L. Jackson just getting started.
But Lunde said his view is that "Dukakis is in first place, and everyone else is at the bottom."
Believing that, Simon has invested in the fastest buildup of the Democratic candidates, expanding from three to 16 staff members in the past six weeks and shifting Indiana political operative Michael R. Marshall from the national headquarters to run the effort here.
Much more is to come. Lunde said that mail and voter canvassing now will carry the Simon message to specific areas and constituencies, with Simon "scheduled to come in three or four times a month, behind the voter-contact effort, to hold our gains." Another sign of the increased importance Simon is giving New Hampshire is the decision to start television spots here, ahead of the Iowa media campaign.
Some local Democratic officials question how fertile New Hampshire will be for Simon. The farm and union groups that are automatic targets for his old-fashioned liberal appeal are weak or nonexistent here.
Simon drew well on campuses, including 450 listeners early this morning at Dartmouth College, and he expects to have numerous volunteer student canvassers.
But most of the nonstudent supporters in his audiences the last two days were from the liberal wing of the party. Marshall Gordon, a retiree from Masachussets sporting a Simon button, said he supported George McGovern in the 1984 primary and thinks Dukakis is "too much of a machine politician."
To score well here, said one veteran New Hampshire Democrat, Simon will have to move beyond the "cause people" and appeal to independents (who can vote in either primary), a strategy he has successfully used to win tough elections in Illinois.
Simon launched the effort on this tour. In what appeared to be a swipe at Dukakis, he said voters should weigh "whether any candidate is offering you leadership or just management. A leader does more than just hold his finger to the wind," he said, citing instances such as the 1986 tax bill, which he opposed.
"Whether you happen to agree with Paul Simon on this or other issues, you want someone who will stand up for the national interest and his own beliefs, not what is popular at the moment," he said. That is his message for a state where Dukakis is "popular at the moment."