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Decision Time in New Hampshire

February 20, 1996

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) _ Finally deciding a contest fraught with uncertainty, New Hampshire voters went to the polls today in the nation’s leadoff presidential primary with many making last-minute choices.

David Hart made up his mind over the weekend. ``That’s a tough one,″ he said today before settling on Lamar Alexander, although he isn’t sure his man could win in November. ``I hope so but Clinton’s so entrenched.″

For Bob Dole, the fragile front-runner, the balloting was a crucial test of strength, and his adoption in recent days of Pat Buchanan’s populist economic themes indicated how closely he was watching his rivals.

``We didn’t plan it this way,″ Dole said Monday at an electronics firm, saying Buchanan showed him ``that jobs and trade and what makes America work would become a big issue in the last few days of this campaign.″

This morning, Dole appeared upbeat as he and his wife, Elizabeth, accompanied New Hampshire Gov. Steve Merrill and his wife, Heather, to the polls in Manchester where they cast their votes for Dole.

``We’re in the home stretch,″ Dole said before petting a black Labrador wearing a Dole sign. ``Dogs for Dole _ it’s looking good,″ he added.

For Buchanan, the New Hampshire outcome was a bid to stay atop a wave of support from social conservatives and blue-collar Republicans that has driven him past other, better-financed rivals. He planned to spend part of his day in his hotel room, talking with two dozen call-in radio programs.

``We’re bringing people into the Republican party, working men and women,″ Buchanan said today on CBS ``This Morning.″ ``...These are Democrats. We’re bringing them home.″

Elizabeth Dole, making an eleventh-hour pitch for her husband on the same talk show, said the Senate majority leader is a man to trust while Buchanan is divisive.

``Bob Dole is a person who brings people together,″ she said. ``I think that Pat Buchanan’s positions are polarizing and they are extreme.″

Mrs. Dole also addressed the issue of her husband’s age, 72, that would make him the oldest first-term president to take office: ``Anyone who knows Bob Dole knows he is a man who has the energy of 10 people,″ she said.

Dole told supporters at the Kansas senator’s election-eve rally that he hoped for a big win, but would ``settle for one vote.″

Going into today’s balloting, poll data showed Dole fighting Buchanan for first, with former Tennessee Gov. Alexander in close pursuit. Publisher Steve Forbes has seen his lead steadily sink to fourth.

All in the Top Four have pledged _ no matter what the New Hampshire outcome _ to stick with the race as it moves next to Arizona, South Carolina and the Dakotas. Forbes also plans to campaign in the largely shunned Delaware primary on Saturday. But today’s vote was expected to winnow out those stuck at the bottom of the eight-man pack.

There also was a Democratic primary, although President Clinton had no major opposition.

Among early voters, Bryan Aiken of Manchester, said he cast his ballot for Clinton ``because I’m a good Democrat.″

Kathy Bantas of Manchester decided two days ago to vote for Dole. ``We need integrity back in the White House...I think that he can bring that and so can Elizabeth.″

Kellie Ljungholm voted for Buchanan, making up her mind Monday night. ``He seems the most conservative. He’s against abortion and I just think he’s probably the most dynamic of the Republicans. Dole’s too old.″

In the first voting after midnight today in two tiny towns in northern New Hampshire _ Dixville Notch and Hart’s Location _ Dole won by one vote over Alexander.

Dole captured 14 of the 39 votes cast in the GOP primary. Alexander had 13. Buchanan was next with five, and Forbes had four. Dick Lugar and dropout Phil Gramm each had one vote, along with a write-in for Colin Powell.

In the Democratic primary, Clinton got 12 votes.

Opening times for polls in rest of the state ranged from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m.

``However it comes out..., I’m going to be doing very well,″ Alexander said Monday as he finished his 100-mile walk across the state with a mile-and-a-half stroll in Portsmouth to a waterfront park.

Dole’s campaign was also refusing to make predictions on the outcome. ``This is not a numbers game,″ said press secretary Nelson Warfield.

Light snow and freezing rain was forecast across most of the state for today. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner suggested a high 76 percent of the state’s registered voters would go to the polls.

In their final pitches, candidates trumpeted their ``visions″ for the country even as they continued sniping at each other.

The fiery Buchanan has likened the gathering strength of his campaign to ``peasants with pitchforks coming over the hill″ and predicted, ``We will go all the way. They will not stop us.″

In a stirring address to a torchlit rally of loyalists, Dole defended his years of public service in the face of his opponents’ disdain for the Washington establishment. He recalled with a wavering voice his modest upbringing in small-town Kansas, World War II service that left him severely wounded and a long political career from county attorney to Congress.

``I feel like all my life I’ve been in preparation for this very moment,″ Dole said.

A new Buchanan radio ad aired Monday attacking Dole as ``a desperate man″ and alleging that ``his campaign is making telephone calls smearing me; his surrogates are openly attacking my character.″

Alexander reminded voters that the Republican primary should turn on who’s the best man to beat Clinton in November. While slapping at Buchanan’s ``wrong ideas,″ Alexander made Dole his chief target.

``How could he have gotten to this point in his career and not have one fresh idea about where to take this country as we move into the next century?″ Alexander asked.

Lugar, who’s lagged far behind in the race, called it ``a demolition derby″ of negative charges and countercharges. And he held out little prospect for finishing in the top tier.

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