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N.H. Voters Remain Inquisitive

January 9, 2000

BOW, N.H. (AP) _ It was just after 8 a.m., and Sen. John McCain was well into his latest town hall meeting. Before him sat more than 200 New Hampshire citizens, firing question after question about military policy, corruption, campaign financing and the environment.

And everybody was sitting up straight, awake and alert.

This is New Hampshire, after all, and voters demand more of their candidates than 30-second commercials. From retired elementary school teacher Evelyn Lindquist, an independent, came a common sentiment: ``I’m coming to hear as many of these as I can.″

On New Hampshire television, the anchors are trumpeting a ``palpable excitement,″ and while it may not be quite as frantic as they say, there’s a definite excitement afoot as the primary season kicks into high gear.

Nearly three dozen interviews with southern New Hampshire voters studying the candidates and the issues for the nation’s first primary Feb. 1 suggest an optimism untempered by campaign-trail cynicism. Ask any group of voters _ Republican, Democrat or independent, the New Hampshire specialty _ and you’ll probably hear this: People feel as if they have some real choices this year.

``This primary is different,″ said Christine Miller, a therapist and Democratic ward leader in Concord. ``I find the lack of negative campaigning in both parties surprising. And the amount of sticking to the issues, all the candidates in both parties are hearing the electorate on that one.″

A Boston Herald/WCVB-TV poll taken after Wednesday’s Democratic debate showed 44 percent of New Hampshire voters who plan to cast Democratic primary ballots would do so for Bill Bradley, while 38 percent prefer Vice President Al Gore. The margin of error was 5 percentage points.

``I think that Democrats feel in general that no matter whether they’re supporting Bradley or Gore, they will be content with the victor,″ said Mary Louise Hancock, a longtime New Hampshire Democratic activist. ``I don’t feel any acrimony or any heavy contention or any animosity.″

A Republican poll showed McCain and Texas Gov. George W. Bush as the GOP candidates to beat. Each had nearly equal support from likely New Hampshire Republican voters _ Bush with 33 percent and McCain with 32 percent. Publisher Steve Forbes placed third with 12 percent. The margin of error was 4.8 percentage points.

Front-runners and dark horses alike are barnstorming New Hampshire in myriad ways. Republican Alan Keyes takes his message to a youth political convention this week. Republican Gary Bauer on Thursday became the latest candidate to address the Legislature.

Still, in New Hampshire it’s the small-town events and living-room meet-and-greets where candidates tend to make the deepest impressions. The day before Bauer went to the Statehouse, he spoke at a meeting of the Nashua Fish and Game Association.

That same day, in the diminutive southeastern community of Newmarket, passing drivers _ including one with a McCain bumper sticker _ honked and waved at the Bradley caravan outside Town Hall. Inside, Bradley was affirming his commitment to abortion rights; outside, volunteers from New Hampshire and farther afield were plying the streets in bitter cold to give Newmarket an hourlong taste of campaign pageantry.

Among them was Justin Browne, 20, from Amherst, N.H., volunteering for his first campaign. Though Browne likes Bradley for his health-care proposals, the college student finds a deeper appeal: Bradley ``doesn’t seem like a candidate.″

``He just seems like a normal man _ not only that he has integrity, but that he shows it,″ Browne said.

In New Hampshire, like elsewhere, voters steer conversations toward ``the character issue.″ Though many have favorite causes _ Democrats like to talk about health care and Social Security, Republicans gravitate toward taxes _ integrity is playing a big role as the primary approaches. Voters from both parties say they want a president with integrity.

``I want someone who’ll change the White House. The opposite of disgrace,″ said John Violette of Bow, a retired Xerox service manager and Republican attending McCain’s town meeting last week.

Violette, who credits both parties with fielding some ``excellent candidates″ this year, is an army veteran looking for military experience in his next president, which led him to McCain. He said he also likes the Arizona senator’s easygoing nature.

He wasn’t surprised at the early morning turnout of attentive folks from both parties.

``People in New Hampshire care more,″ Violette said. ``They know it’s a responsibility.″

A responsibility that, many in New Hampshire say, requires more contemplation this year.

``For once, we have some quality people running on either side, which I think we haven’t had in a long time,″ said Norm Wilson, 80, a retired engineer and Republican-leaning independent who lives in a Concord retirement community.

``For once,″ he said, ``we have some choices.″

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