Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) arrives in New Hampshire today facing intensified competition from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and questions about whether overconfidence is causing him to take Granite State voters for granted.
In the past two weeks, Bush has skipped two presidential candidate forums in New Hampshire. He bypassed the first to attend a fund-raiser in neighboring Vermont, then begged off last week's forum at Dartmouth College because his wife, Laura, was receiving an award in Texas from Southern Methodist University.
Bush insisted at the time that he meant no slight of the state with the nation's first primary, but aides said yesterday that he will step up his campaign activity there in an effort to show the voters that he is committed to earning their support.
"We need to send a very strong message," one Bush adviser said, "that we're not taking this nomination for granted, that we recognize that this is a campaign and not a coronation and that we've got a real contest."
While Bush's supporters say they do not think he made a mistake by missing the two debates, some acknowledge privately that many voters have begun to take note of Bush's relative absence in the state, especially with his rivals mocking it. They argue that Bush has not been damaged because most voters there are just now beginning to pay attention.
"I think there is a bit of frustration about him not coming that's been carried over from the onset with him coming to the race late," said one Bush supporter, who asked not to be identified.
Four recent New Hampshire polls show McCain gaining ground on Bush, although the numbers suggest that his growth has come largely from supporters of other candidates who have dropped out of the race, not from Bush. Those polls show Bush hovering at or just above 40 percent, while McCain is at or just above 25 percent. "The one thing I haven't seen is a drop in Bush's support," said Andy Smith of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
Pollster Del Ali, president of Research 2000, said Bush had dropped a bit in his most recent poll for the Concord Monitor, which began the day Elizabeth Dole dropped out. That poll showed Bush at 39 percent to McCain's 27 percent. In August, with Dole in the race, Bush was at 45 percent to McCain's 10 percent.
"Perhaps voters may be having second thoughts," Ali said. "His elusiveness on whether to attend the debates . . . probably was a bad move for two reasons. Number one, you don't do that in New Hampshire. The second thing is, it really has put pressure on him when he does debate [Dec. 2]. He's really got to knock it out of the park now."
Former New Hampshire senator Warren B. Rudman, a McCain supporter, said of Bush: "He may be good, but nobody in New Hampshire can pick him out of a lineup. He's totally unknown. This tremendous support comes from name recognition and nothing else. I bet you could get 100 people together in New Hampshire and not any of them could tell you two things he's done in Texas."
On the night his five rivals debated last week, Bush tried to take some of the sting out of his absence by doing a live interview on WMUR-TV, the New Hampshire television station that co-hosted the forum. But while acknowledging that he has much work to do in the state before the Feb. 1 primary, he also made several comments that suggested overconfidence or even cockiness.
At one point he was asked about the television advertising campaign he launched early last week. His reply: "I hope your station appreciates that." At another point, ticking off his campaign themes, he declared: "It seems the people of New Hampshire accept my vision and they want me to be the nominee."
David Carney, a New Hampshire GOP strategist who worked in Bush's father's campaign, said the Texas governor has a problem with voters that he needs to address. "It isn't just other campaigns whining or press people complaining," Carney said. "It's real people talking about it." Carney added that Bush can overcome the problem by stepping up the amount of time he spends in the state. Bush advisers said that is exactly what the candidate intends to do.
"I don't think there's anybody looking for any mea culpa or extraordinary thing," said Tom Rath, the Republican national committeeman from New Hampshire and a Bush adviser. "People are willing to accept his rationale [for missing the debates]. I don't think it's a big thing in the state, and it's cured by being here."
Bush will spend today and part of Wednesday in New Hampshire and his schedule includes a major policy speech on education. The GOP frontrunner also has agreed to participate in the next scheduled debate on Dec. 2.
Bush advisers also noted that, while his rivals are concentrating on a few early primary or caucus states, their candidate has been campaigning energetically throughout the country, building a national political organization. "We have a plan," one adviser said. "We're executing that plan."
Others see weakness in Bush's strategy. Independent pollster Dick Bennett said Bush could be vulnerable in New Hampshire because voters know little about him. When Bennett asks voters what they like about Bush, they generally say they like the fact that he can win. But recent national polls have shown both former New Jersey senator Bill Bradley and Vice President Gore eating into the double-digit lead Bush has over them in hypothetical general election matchups.
Campaign advisers said Bush will be in New Hampshire when it counts most. "History shows these campaigns are won or lost in the last two or three weeks," one adviser said, "and no one in the campaign is unaware of that. He's going to be spending a lot of time up there."
CAPTION: Texas Gov. George W. Bush (R) is facing increased competition from Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) among voters in the Granite State, according to recent polls.