Taxes at heart of a win in N.H.

By David M. Shribman, Globe Columnist, 1/21/2000

LAISTOW, N.H. - It was immediately recognizable as a New Hampshire political event.

Not because the weather outside was a brutal, biting cold. Not because there were crusts of snow along the sides of the parking lot. Not because there were eager campaign aides handing out brochures. But because the biggest applause from teenagers in the high school gym came when the candidate said he believes ''it encourages economic growth when we cut the taxes of the people who pay them.''

The people in the audience on this frosty afternoon were the juniors and seniors of Timberlane High School, and it was clear they had been trained well by their elders - tax-haters all - in the orthodoxy of low taxes. The candidate was Governor George W. Bush of Texas, and it was clear he had been trained well by his elders - veterans of the Washington tax wars - in the efficacy of tax politics in Republican primaries in this state of passion and parsimony.

Nowhere does the GOP tax orthodoxy and GOP political efficacy mesh quite so intimately as it does in New Hampshire primaries, and that is why Bush is sticking with his issue and his message in the final stretch to the nation's first primary.

The tax message isn't as effective in Iowa, where Republican hearts beat to the subtle rhythms of social issues like abortion and school prayer, as it is in New Hampshire, where Republican politics often means nothing else and where high school students don't roll their eyes when candidates speak of marginal rates of taxation, the earnings tax on Social Security recipients, the death tax, and the marriage penalty.

But the governor can afford to stick with the tax tack. His campaign is in robust health in Iowa, where he's expected to win Monday's precinct caucuses with crisp efficiency. It's New Hampshire - wily, elusive, iconoclastic New Hampshire - that matters to him now, because it is in New Hampshire where Senator John McCain of Arizona is making his stand - and may make his mark.

So the issue message from the Bush campaign in the next week will be all taxes all the time.

Plus one small variation on the theme: The New Hampshire conviction that all politics darn well ought to be local.

That is why a new Bush ad, aimed at McCain, carries this message, tailored to the temper of this special electorate: ''My opponent trusts the people of Washington to spend money. I trust the people of New Hampshire to make the right decisions for their families.''

Bush may be a new face, but his staff is wizened, and many of his advisers remember the 1988 GOP primary and an unforgettable episode: Shortly before New Hampshire voters went to the polls, Robert J. Dole's pollster, Richard Wirthlin, assured the Kansas senator that he would prevail here. But deep in the internals of public-opinion polls was a fatal finding: Voters here believed that Vice President George H. W. Bush was more trustworthy on taxes.

Dole lost. Bush won. A lesson - in taxes and in polling, as well as in the sort of thing a pollster tells his paymaster - was learned.

The polls this time include a perplexing finding that presents the younger Bush with a substantial problem. Voters in New Hampshire think Bush will win the nomination. They're just not sure he should.

The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll shows that 68 percent of likely GOP primary voters in New Hampshire believe that Bush has the best chance of winning the White House in November's balloting, as against only 27 percent who believe that McCain has the best chance. But 61 percent of those likely voters say there are some things about Bush that worry them, and three voters out of four believe that McCain is an inspiring candidate.

Bush advisers believe there is no easy antidote to that predicament, and in the next week they plan a subtle strategic adjustment. They expect a strong showing in Iowa on Monday - a far clearer win for Bush than any recent Republican has achieved - and they plan to play to their strength the widespread assumption among Republicans that Bush will be the eventual nominee and is the strongest candidate.

These strategists are debating how to exploit their expected Iowa victory here, but they know that it must be done deftly and that the phrase ''inevitibility'' cannot slip off the lips of the candidate or anyone else in his retinue.

Here's why: Americans love a winner. New Hampshire voters do not.

In recent years New Hampshire primary voters have chosen, among others, Henry Cabot Lodge (not nominated by the Republicans in 1960), Lyndon B. Johnson (not nominated by the Democrats in 1968), Gary W. Hart (not nominated by the Democrats in 1984), Paul E. Tsongas (not nominated by the Democrats in 1992) and Patrick J. Buchanan (not nominated by the Republicans in 1996).

Winning the New Hampshire primary thus is no blessing. But the only thing worse than winning it, alas, is losing it.