NASHUA, N.H., FEB. 13 -- The last Democratic debate before Tuesday's primary left a group of New Hampshire voters impressed by a candidate it had and lost, Gary Hart, but still searching for one it has yet to find.
The former Colorado senator impressed the group the most, but he also kindled resentment among many because he dropped out of the race for the party's presidential nomination and then reentered.
"I still have him up on a dart board," said Andi Logan, a former Hart activist who was one of 14 Nashua area Democrats invited by The Washington Post to watch the debate and react to it. "I would have stayed with him if he hadn't dropped out. He got out too fast, and I think he showed a character flaw by getting back in."
Tim LuceWireman, another former Hart backer, agreed. "That's why we dropped him like a cold potato."
While none of the 14 intends to vote for Hart, he was the only candidate who stirred strong emotions.
Before the debate, six were undecided, two supported Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, two were for Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.) and one each for Sens. Paul Simon (D-Ill.) and Albert Gore Jr. (D-Tenn.), former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt and Jesse L. Jackson.
Despite meeting all of the candidates and watching hours of television debates, the commitment of the 14 lacked conviction.
"There's not a strong candidate," said John Wheeler, a businessman who is undecided about whom he favors.
"They're all clones," said Joe Zawodny, a salesman who is supporting Gephardt. "Nobody stands out."
When asked if they thought another candidate could or should enter the race, 10 raised their hands. They named New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo and Sens. Bill Bradley (N.J.) and Sam Nunn (Ga.).
Cuomo was their favorite, but several expressed fears that he chose not to run because he did not want to face the scrutiny that he and his family might get.
"Can he beat the Republican in November?" asked LuceWireman. "That's why I'm for Dukakis."
As viewed by the group watching today's debate, Hart's best moment was when he put down the front-runner from the state next door: Dukakis.
The group applauded when Hart demanded of Dukakis, who was criticizing an oil import fee, "What is your energy policy? I haven't heard one from you yet."
Dukakis is the heavy favorite next Tuesday, but 10 years of familiarity with him has bred a certain amount of contempt among the 14 voters.
"Dukakis reminds me of Nixon: he has no personality," Zawodny said.
Gerry Sherman, a construction company owner who worked in Dukakis' gubernatorial campaign, said, "Duke was okay for awhile, but he did things that left a bad taste. He is a politician who pretends not to be a politician."
One Dukakis, supporter, Sheila Bourbeau, a social worker, said she found Dukakis the most trustworthy on issues ranging from nuclear energy to nucelar war.
Dukakis was not alone in being criticized by the debate viewers. Gephardt also drew flak.
"Gephardt is a vicious man, and he doesn't stand for anything," said Bill Barry, a lawyer who proselytized for Gore at the session. "He has a willpower of glass: very hard but easily shattered."
Ed Maisel, a retired businessman, said he thought Gephardt had successfully parried the attack by his fellow candidates. "I thought Gephardt did better than any of the others," he said.
Simon fared worst with the group: eight of the 14 had him on their worst-performance list, and only two rated him as one of the top three performers. "He's a Democratic wimp," Wheeler said.
Babbitt got high marks for his performance, but no pity and no votes. His appeal to New Hampshire Democrats to help keep his campaign was dismissed with hard-headed judgments on his electability.
Barry, defended his support of Gore on the grounds of electability. "People will vote for him because he's handsome," he said.
Jackson's lone supporter, Veronica Sherman, a girl's club worker, said she sees her vote as "a way to make a statement to create an American mind-set toward affirmative action in the White House."