Texas Gov. George W. Bush said yesterday that rival John McCain "may very well be the front-runner now in New Hampshire," as a round of polls taken after two recent GOP candidate debates showed the Arizona senator overtaking Bush's once-commanding lead in the nation's first primary state.
"I've got a heck of a race on my hands," Bush said in a telephone interview from Austin hours after returning to Texas following two days of campaigning in the Granite State. "I appreciate that, and frankly that's not all that bad."
Three polls this week confirmed that McCain continues to surge in New Hampshire, where he has concentrated most of his campaign time, and that he has moved into the lead. More worrisome to Bush supporters, however, was that the polls also showed for the first time an erosion in Bush's support in a state that can have outsize influence on the course of a nomination battle.
Bush's comments came as McCain sought to maintain his momentum in New Hampshire, with aides confirming that the Arizona senator will appear with Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley next Thursday in Claremond, N.H., to talk about campaign finance reform.
That's the town where President Clinton and then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich met in 1995 and shook hands in a symbolic--and unrealized--promise to reform the campaign finance system. Bradley and McCain have said that if they are the nominees, they will not allow the use of "soft money"--large contributions from individuals, corporations and labor unions--in the general election.
In the telephone interview, Bush was reacting to three New Hampshire polls taken after the Dec. 2 GOP debate in Manchester, N.H., and Monday's debate in Phoenix. A Zogby International poll for Reuters and WHDH-TV released Tuesday showed McCain with 35 percent and Bush with 32 percent. An American Research Group poll released Wednesday found McCain at 37 percent and Bush at 30 percent. Yesterday, a Franklin Pierce College poll for WNDS-TV gave McCain a lead of 43 percent to 28 percent.
The other four Republican candidates--Gary Bauer, Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), Steve Forbes and Alan Keyes--are far behind in all the New Hampshire polls.
Bush has come under criticism for his performance in the two recent debates. While committing no major mistakes in either, Bush dominated neither event and had to fend off attacks from his rivals about his policies and his readiness for national office.
But Bush said yesterday he does not believe the changing poll numbers in New Hampshire reflect voters' impressions of how he or McCain performed in the debates. "I don't think the debates played much role in the decision-making" by the voters, Bush said. "I haven't received much criticism among the people I see. I thought the reviews were mixed."
One McCain adviser, disagreeing with Bush, said he believed that the debates had been crucial in giving McCain his latest boost. "That's really the only dynamic that's changed," he said.
The Texas governor expressed confidence about his prospects in New Hampshire, saying that half a dozen polls he has seen during the past two weeks show him "up, down and even" against McCain. But he conceded that "I need to get up there" and that he must make sure his agenda of cutting taxes, reforming education and strengthening the military "becomes real clear in people's minds."
Privately, Bush and McCain advisers discounted the latest poll giving McCain a 15-point lead, but the McCain camp said the recent round of polls confirmed the trend lines in their private surveys. Bush's private polling shows a more competitive race than the recent public polls show, according to sources.
Bush said he plans no major changes in his campaign. "The only thing I know how to do is to continue with our game plan," he said.
One Republican strategist said Bush should be most concerned that he has become the establishment candidate, with McCain the populist outsider, despite McCain's 17 years in Congress.
"At one point in the campaign, Bush was the outsider and was not [from] Washington," the strategist said. "He had a little populism to him. McCain is taking that from him and there's a little danger there. He should move toward that populist side and away from the establishment side."
Bush did not take serious issue with that characterization. Asked how he will counter impressions that he has become the favored candidate inside the Beltway, he said he will redouble his efforts between now and the Feb. 1 New Hampshire primary to demonstrate to voters that that impression is wrong. "By the time this is over, people will understand I'm the person coming out of Texas," he said.
Tom Rath, the New Hampshire Republican national committeeman and a Bush adviser, said, "I'm convinced that we can turn this around in time to win it. I don't think it accurately reflects a settled electorate."
The Bush campaign, he added, always anticipated a difficult race in New Hampshire, and he credited McCain with running a strong campaign there. But he said McCain has put "all his chips onto the wheel of New Hampshire. He has to do well here," Rath said. "I think Senator McCain has to win New Hampshire at this point."
One Bush adviser, asking not to be identified, said that New Hampshire's electorate--heavily independent and historically tough on national front-runners--is tailor-made for McCain's campaign style but that the senator will have trouble in later primaries. "That dynamic is not capable of replication past New Hampshire," he said.
Another Bush adviser said, "This is the first time I've seen our number go down. That's the one thing that troubles me."
Staff writer David Von Drehle contributed to this report.