Worried about their parties' prospects in November, both Democratic and Republican voters in this leadoff primary state are expressing strong misgivings about the candidates and the issues dominating the nomination battles.
After watching Wednesday night's television debate at the University of New Hampshire, a group of Democrats said they wished rivals Al Gore and Bill Bradley would admit they have no serious policy differences, stop sniping at each other and consider teaming up as a ticket.
"I think they'd make a good team--Al Gore as the president and Bill Bradley as the vice president--if they could work together, because I think they're both heading in the same direction," commented Karen Stanley, a part-time teacher.
A similar group of Republicans, after viewing Thursday night's GOP debate from the same location, fretted that neither of the supposed front-runners, George W. Bush and John McCain, had shown the kind of poise and seriousness it may take to defeat the Democrats.
High school teacher David Alcox complained that with all the emphasis on "fringe issues, I didn't see any real dialogue tonight on how they were going to help me."
The results of a national poll released Wednesday suggest that doubts may be growing about the current crop of candidates. The proportion of Americans who say they are uncommitted to a presidential candidate has increased from 64 percent to 74 percent in the past two months, according to weekly polls sponsored by Harvard University's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
The Washington Post invited nine people each night--a mixture of avowed partisans and independents who plan to vote in that party's primary on Feb. 1--to talk about the factors that will shape their choice for president, then to watch the debate together here and give their reactions to what they had seen. Each group was weighted heavily toward people who said they were undecided on which candidate to support or had only a slight favorite.
While polarized in their judgments on the Clinton presidency, both groups said that the most important issues for the next occupant of the White House to address are the education and health care needs of the country. The Democrats found the Bradley and Gore discussion of those topics a muddle; the Republicans expressed displeasure that their hopefuls gave them short shrift.
Matters that consumed a good deal of time in both debates--notably, gays in the military--were dismissed as irrelevancies. Reflecting the prosperity of their state, few of the New Hampshire voters expressed great interest in the budgetary issues that Bradley and Gore disputed or the tax cuts that preoccupied Bush, McCain and Steve Forbes.
Overall, the Republicans appeared to be less satisfied with their six-man field of aspirants than the Democrats did with the Gore-Bradley matchup. Utah Sen. Orrin G. Hatch was widely judged to have outshone everyone in the GOP debate, but none of the nine listeners marked his name on a secret ballot after the broadcast.
The Democrats welcomed Gore's proposal for twice-weekly debates on specific issues, and both groups complained that the format and management of these one-hour, all-topics forums left them unsatisfied. Several praised Gore's approach to the issues. "He may seem stodgy . . . and he talks too much," said Susan Lewandowski, a word processor. "But at least he puts some thought into it, and I think he's got a little bit more experience behind him."
While Bradley's strategists welcomed the aggressive stance he took toward Gore Wednesday night, accusing the vice president of distorting his views and of being trapped in a "Washington bunker" mentality, the viewers here split along gender lines in their reactions.
"Bradley reminded me of an argumentative man who slashes and insults," said Raquel Perez, a Spanish teacher. "I disliked it totally. . . . I counted four smirks and three name-callings."
Many of the men, on the other hand, found Bradley "more candid, more direct and more to the point," as Dennis Reid, an IBM data analyst, put it. "Bradley came a little bit more from the gut," said Paul Posluszny, a landscaper. "Al has the experience, but he comes across as kind of rehearsed."
The same sharp gender gap has appeared in polls of New Hampshire Democrats, with men favoring Bradley and women supporting Gore. But no matter how sharp their stylistic differences, neither man convinced these Democrats that they had substantial policy disagreements.
"I think they just have their own ways of getting it done," said Posluszny, "but I think they're pretty much heading in the same direction on the issues. They both seem genuinely concerned about the major topics that we brought up."
One reason these Democrats would like to see Gore and Bradley come together is their concern about November. "I think both of them come off looking better than Bush would," said Reid, to murmurs of agreement, "but McCain would be harder."
Complaining that the press seems preoccupied with the scandals of the Clinton White House, Karen Stanley said, "I look for somebody who doesn't have a lot of baggage." But she and the others at the table rejected the notion that Monica S. Lewinsky would be an issue in November. "The economy is great," said Lewandowski, adding that if President Clinton "could just be in there there another four years and get a grip on his personal problem, we could improve on so many other things."
The Republicans could not disagree more. When asked about election-year issues, they mentioned education, health care and traffic congestion first. But when Becky Flanders, a Merrimack housewife, said, "The moral issues are my thing, because our current president has really made a shambles of our country," everyone agreed. Ed Robinson, a sales manager, said, "I don't know how a young person can look up to and respect that high office with what we've had there for eight years."
Given their low opinion of Clinton, it is not surprising that these Republicans want someone very different--someone, as Robinson said, "you can look at like you look at your grandfather." Michele Fraser, a part-time health plan administrator, said, "I'd like somebody to work for it, not to get it by name recognition, but to have the experience and knowledge you get when you work your way up."
That person is not immediately visible to them in the current GOP field. Some expressed regret at losing candidates even before the New Hampshire vote. Flanders said that when Dan Quayle dropped out, "I was crying. It was almost like a death in the family." Interior decorator Diane Walton and office manager Linda Peterson said they wish Elizabeth Dole had not abandoned her quest. "I think a woman in there would have made a difference," Peterson said.
Bush drew decidedly mixed reviews from this group--both before and after the debate.
Early in the evening, Walton said, "I'm really tired of hearing about Texas. It just bugs me. We get things almost every week from the Bush campaign, maybe because he knows I voted for his dad. Every ad I see on television, every brochure I get in the mail, he's tooting his own horn like nobody's business."
"He's got to spend all that money somewhere," retiree Ralph Andrews observed tartly. "He hasn't shown up like other candidates enough to meet with people and talk to them; he just puts on this image on television and figures that's enough to carry him."
Andrews and a couple of others arrived leaning toward McCain, but they--and everyone else at the table--said after the debate that they were less impressed with the Arizona senator than they had been earlier. Placed on the defensive by aggressive questioning of his intervention for a campaign contributor on a licensing decision before the Federal Communications Commission, McCain "looked a little unsure" to Andrews, who said, "He rambled away from questions."
Robert Morin, a traffic manager, dismissed both New Hampshire front-runners. "George W. Bush believes his own commercials and memorizes them," he said. "Every answer he had was almost verbatim from the commercials I've seen on television." As for McCain, Morin suggested that he is running on his biography: "Most of his stuff is that he's been there and done that. He's been to war. He's been in prison. He's experienced a lot of things that would probably kill most of us."
Although seven of the nine were registered Republicans and the other two GOP-leaning independents, their characterizations of the candidates were cruel. "I was put off by the jokes and the 'good old boy' atmosphere," said Robinson. Bush, whose fresh haircut made him look younger and more slight than on other occasions, reminded Peterson of "one of the Smothers brothers." Walter said, "It's hard to take Forbes seriously because he reminds me of Howdy Doody. He's always smiling, even when they ask him a serious question. Maybe it's because he's not comfortable speaking in front of a large crowd."
The one person who had been leaning toward Forbes in a pre-debate secret ballot dropped him afterward, joining the ranks of the undecided. When the moderator asked the group members if they were "satisfied with this field," Alcox replied, "I don't know. I wonder."
Morin jumped in. "My concern is that we, as a whole party, haven't gotten an individual who has stepped forward to run the party. Maybe that's because the base of the party is so diverse, we can't have one voice."
The final disquieting note came from Flanders. When the group was asked how confident it was of defeating the Democrats in November, she was quick to reply: "Truthfully, not so confident. . . . If it came down between Bush and Bradley, I might have to go with Bradley. I'm not impressed with George Bush. And I'm an avowed Republican."