New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D) waited so long this year to endorse Vice President Gore that she may have Bill Bradley right where she wants him. "It's always harder," Shaheen says from experience, "to run from the front than from behind, and I think he's in that situation now."

Shaheen is a veteran of New Hampshire presidential primaries. Before she ran for office, she was helping others. But mostly they were the underdogs. Her support of Gore represents a rare embrace of the party establishment.

She was with Jimmy Carter in 1976, having attended the first organization meeting he held in New Hampshire in 1975. She was with Carter again when, as a sitting president, he looked doomed in New Hampshire against Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) in 1980. She helped mastermind Gary Hart's stunning upset of Walter F. Mondale in 1984. She sat out the 1988 presidential primary, but in 1992 she supported Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) against Bill Clinton and Paul Tsongas.

Shaheen rejects suggestions that she has picked her presidential candidates by sizing up the most promising of the underdogs. "It's not the insurgency that has been the issue for me, it has been the ideology," she said. "I am much more of a centrist Democrat, which is what Jimmy Carter was, which is what Gary Hart was in that race, and it's what Al Gore is. . . . It hasn't come out as much as I would like to see it come out, but there's a long way to go between now and the election."

Shaheen has spent most of the year trying to resolve a contentious school-funding dispute sparked by the courts that resulted in a new statewide property tax. Now she has put her considerable prestige--she is the most popular Democrat in the state with a strong political organization--behind a candidate who saw his lead disappear earlier this fall and who trails Bradley in recent polls.

She is asked whether Gore might have avoided some of his problems in New Hampshire if she had endorsed him earlier. "It would be nice to think that if we had been involved earlier we could have avoided some of those things, but you never know," she said. "There's always tension between what goes on in state campaign organizations and the national operation."

Shaheen is alluding to the battle between Gore's headquarters and his New Hampshire organizers over the style of campaign he was running in the state. For months local organizers pleaded with Gore to ditch the trappings of the vice presidency and campaign as just plain Al. A few months ago the national campaign relented.

"Obviously the campaign is doing much better," Shaheen said, adding, "He has shed the vice presidency image and is able to relate more directly to people. I think the town meeting format they've developed where he stays and he answers questions and he talks to people have been helpful. He's been able to engage with voters in a way that he wasn't able to do as 'The Vice President.' "

Shaheen's Dec. 4 endorsement of Gore was the worst-kept secret of the presidential campaign. Early this year, Gore tapped her husband, Billy, to chair his New Hampshire operation, and it was only the long and controversial fight over court-ordered equalization of school funding that delayed Shaheen's formal announcement.

But her support could be critical to Gore's success. The only question is whether the school fight will spill over into the presidential primary. Some liberal Democrats resent Shaheen's refusal to support a state income tax, which they regard as more equitable, but the second-term governor would not break her campaign pledge against an income tax.

Given what she has gone through in the school fight, she was asked whether she worried that the Gore attack on Bradley for refusing to rule out a tax increase to pay for his health care plan was unfair. Wasn't Bradley simply acknowledging the reality of what New Hampshire politicians have just learned, which is that it is difficult to predict the future?

"No it doesn't really concern me," she said of Gore's attack. "Campaigns are about drawing distinctions between candidates. I know first hand very painfully how big the tax issue is and how much a concern it is in a national election. I witnessed Walter Mondale in 1984 [when he said he would raise taxes if elected] and I'm not interested in going there again."

The record of New Hampshire governors in presidential primaries is mixed. In 1988, then-Gov. John H. Sununu helped rescue George Bush in the New Hampshire primary and ended up as White House chief of staff. Four years ago, then-Gov. Steve Merrill backed Robert J. Dole. The primary brought about a humiliating defeat for Dole and a quick exit from elective office for Merrill.

What lies ahead for Shaheen is not clear. If Gore wins New Hampshire and the nomination, she no doubt will be mentioned as a possible vice presidential running mate, although she attempted to deflect those questions on the day of the endorsement. She can run again for governor in 2000 and may have her eye on a Senate race in 2002 against Sen. Robert C. Smith (R), whose abbreviated presidential candidacy this year--and his even briefer flirtation with an independent presidential candidacy--has left him highly vulnerable at home.

Shaheen will not tip her hand. She said she will devote as much time as she can to the Gore campaign between now and the Feb. 1 primary, but her main interest is in serving as governor.

Bradley has run a good campaign, she acknowledges, and she said the former New Jersey senator is now the front-runner and her candidate the underdog. But what about national polls that still show Gore ahead? Isn't the vice president the real front-runner?

"As I keep telling people, we're not running a national campaign here," Shaheen said. "We're running the New Hampshire campaign, and that's what's important."