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As New Hampshire Voters Shop, Their Tales Of Distress Shape Their Choices

February 3, 1992

DERRY, N.H. (AP) _ Caroline Cote arrived at the Promises to Keep restaurant leaning toward Democratic presidential candidate Bob Kerrey. She left supporting rival Bill Clinton. For now, anyway.

″Put me at 90 percent in case I change my mind again,″ the high tech worker from Windham said after a weekend Clinton rally.

With just two weeks until their kickoff presidential primary, it’s getting to be decision time for New Hampshire voters. As they shop for a candidate, many tell stories of economic despair that are shaping their choices, and, for many, changing their politics.

Bob Doty of Durham, for example, is a lifelong Republican shopping for a Democrat with a plan to control the deficit, which he says is robbing the country of its future.

″I never conceived myself backing a Democrat or even liking a Democrat,″ Doty said as he looked over Kerrey at a rally. He left still looking.

″Nobody is saying what I want to hear, which is why I’m undecided,″ said Doty, a public employee who said he’d vote for Bill Clinton if no one else impresses him more, because his union is behind the Arkansas governor.

Attorney Chris Regan is doing better than many of his fellow New Hampshire residents, but says his family’s health insurance is costing him $1,300 each quarter.

So Kerrey’s national health insurance plan had Regan listening, as he marveled at how late it was for him to be deciding.

″I can’t remember ever deciding this late,″ he said. ″No one really seems to have caught fire.″

That’s a chorus heard at event after event. Polls show Clinton leading and former Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas second, trailed by Kerrey, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin and former California Gov. Jerry Brown. But a good chunk of the voters are undecided and much of the declared support is considered soft.

It appears most New Hampshire voters are just getting around to making up their minds. As they search and shop, many voters tell stories of despair far more powerful than any appeals by the candidates.

In a trembling voice, a woman told Clinton the other night of trying to raise seven children on a welfare payment of $150 a month, ″eating rice every single meal.″ She told Harkin her story - and others - at an earlier event.

A woman who walked up to the microphone at another rally said President Bush ″ought to be hung″ for his State of the Union speech criticism of ″Puritans″ who criticize others for having a good time. She said the president’s message was ″let them eat cake,″ and that she and her unemployed husband turned deaf ears to his promises.

From the crowd came a voice saying that 10 people on her block had lost their homes to foreclosure.

And tears streamed down Emily Thibeault’s cheek as she told Clinton how her father, a former Green Beret who lost his 20-year job at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard to defense cuts, had to take a job in North Carolina after 10 months on unemployment in recession-wracked New Hampshire.

″It’s my senior year and my father’s not here,″ said the high school student - about to vote in her first election. ″It’s not right. You have to help us. ... Why did he have to be destroyed?″

Harkin spent part of his Sunday afternoon at the Derry home of Marie and Bob Mullikian. She told him they may not have it long enough to invite Harkin again; both have lost their jobs and have sent their son to live with relatives.

As the Feb. 18 primary draws closer, it’s not just the undecided who are trying to make up their minds. With the campaigns now seeking commitments and volunteers for the stretch run, many whose support is not firm have to confront nagging doubts.

It was doubts about Kerrey that brought Cote to the Clinton rally, where she was won over by his talk about global competitiveness.

″I work in high tech and we’re struggling because this country is not prepared,″ she said. ″It was nice to finally hear a presidential candidate talk knowledgeably about a global economy.″

Count Shirley Gilman among those voters who won’t make up their mind until she sees each candidate at least once, and preferably three or four times.

″He looks and sounds good,″ the Manchester retiree said as Harkin spoke at a recent rally. ″But just hearing one talk isn’t any good. You have to hear them all.″

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