MANCHESTER, N.H. -- For the two insurgents whose rise has reshaped the race for the presidency, this is crunch time.
The days leading to Tuesday's New Hampshire primary are likely to determine whether Democrat Bill Bradley and Republican John McCain can seriously threaten the front-runner in each campaign, many analysts believe.
Bradley and McCain have attracted enough followers elsewhere to carry their candidacies past New Hampshire, even if they lose -- and Bradley benefits from having a campaign bankroll as large as Gore's. The problem they face is that polls show Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush holding big leads in almost every other key state on the calendar.
Overcoming those advantages state-by-state would be very difficult for Bradley and McCain -- especially in the compressed schedule of the 2000 race. The New Hampshire primary, which draws enormous media attention, offers the two challengers their best chance at a breakthrough that could improve their position everywhere at once. It also presents Steve Forbes, the Republican second-place finisher in Iowa, his best chance to emerge as a lasting influence in the race.
Conversely, if the two front-runners can reinforce their solid Iowa victories with wins in New Hampshire, the challengers may find the curtain falling in the first act.
''I think that New Hampshire is the last chance that both McCain and Bradley have to gain a toehold on the nomination,'' says political scientist William G. Mayer, the editor of a new book on the primary process. ''Even if they win, I still think the odds are probably against them. But the odds are even more strikingly against them if they lose New Hampshire.''
A year ago, McCain and Bradley would have settled for strong second-place showings in New Hampshire that might create momentum for the bigger contests down the road. But their very success at surging to the top of polls here this fall has changed the dynamic.
If Gore or Bush now come back to win, they would add momentum to their formidable other advantages -- in endorsements, institutional support and the national polls. The compressed primary calendar -- the Republicans face ten more contests in February and more than a dozen states will vote in both parties on March 7 -- could leave the challengers little time to reverse such a wave.
The good news for Bradley, McCain and perhaps even Forbes is that New Hampshire voters have rejected the Iowa winners on several occasions. Front-running Republicans Ronald Reagan in 1980 and George Bush in 1988 and Democrat Michael S. Dukakis (also in 1988) all lost in Iowa and came back to win New Hampshire.
Partly that's because New Hampshire is the one other state where candidates spend enough time to develop genuine ties to supporters; that makes Granite State voters resistant, if not immune, to influence from Iowa. But its also because New Hampshire's electorate is so different from Iowa's, with far fewer religious conservatives on the Republican side, much less union influence in the Democratic race and a much greater presence of moderate and independent upscale suburbanites in both contests.
Those are voters virtually designed for both McCain and Bradley. That sympathetic audience both improves the odds and raises the stakes for the two: if they can't win in New Hampshire, they are bound to face questions about whether they can win elsewhere.
Of the two challengers, Bradley is in a more precarious position. Almost all surveys now show Gore solidly ahead here.
Neither campaign, though, believes that lead is insurmountable. One adviser said Bradley's erosion in New Hampshire was due largely to the candidate's absence from the state (he's spent only one full day there since Jan. 5), and the bad news that dogged his campaign in Iowa. Though Gore strategists also attribute the gains to the vice president's performance, they agree the state is far from out of reach for Bradley.
Bradley seems to be settling on a two-track strategy for the final drive here. In his last Iowa appearances, and his return to New Hampshire Tuesday, he avoided criticism of Gore and returned to the broader themes of reform, change and new possibilities that he stressed earlier in his campaign.
At the same time, though, surrogates are delivering perhaps their sharpest attacks yet on the ethics of Gore and President Clinton.' That combination could help Bradley regain lost ground among independent and less partisan Democrats disillusioned with the administration. But he risks further alienating core Democrats loyal to Clinton.
One threat to Bradley is that some independent voters now attracted to his candidacy may move toward McCain if he appears a more viable prospect. A poll by Franklin Pierce College found movement in that direction already under way -- though McCain's internal surveys discerned a much more modest effect.
In any case, McCain begins the week leading Bush in almost all surveys in the state. Bush may have diminished his ability to recapture independent and moderate New Hampshire voters (the core of McCain's support) with the sharp anti-abortion language he used while courting religious conservatives in Iowa.
''He has not helped himself with independents and moderates,'' said John Weaver, a top McCain strategist.
Complicating Bush's challenge are the strong Iowa showings of Forbes and Alan Keyes. Each might cut into the conservative votes Bush is relying on to remain close to McCain -- though neither have shown much movement in the first public and private New Hampshire polls after the Iowa result.
McCain hasn't bet all his chips on New Hampshire: he's also poured time and money into South Carolina's Feb. 19 primary -- which historically has played as great a role as New Hampshire in selecting the GOP winner.
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