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Primary Or Prime Time? Residents Say It’s Harder To Meet Contenders As TV Ads Take Over

Donna Chretian braced for the onslaught of the media horde surrounding Bob Dole.

The petite mother in the neat gray suit was a woman with a cause. She clutched a paper asking candidates to improve Medicare coverage for diabetes sufferers, and wanted the Republican presidential front-runner to sign it.

In New Hampshire, home of the first presidential primary, people with causes go looking for candidates to question, pester and cajole.

But in 1996, it is increasingly difficult to see candidates - except on TV commercials whose negative tone turn some voters off. Talking to candidates for even a few seconds takes tenacity.

“I have been all across the state and spoken to every candidate in person,” Chretian explained as the swirling knot of about 50 cameramen, sound technicians and reporters lurched closer. In the center, Dole shook hands with supporters who had just heard his breakfast speech.

Chretian, a 41-year-old nurse, became an advocate for health care reform when her daughter was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and the family discovered its insurance did not cover syringes and insulin to treat the disease. The reason: Medicare does not cover such supplies, and the federal health care system sets a standard many private insurance companies adopt.

Chretian knew Dole would not read the study she carried that explained one dollar in four spent on Medicare goes to treat the complications of diabetes. But maybe he would sign the pledge.

A fellow activist yelled over the growing din that the Dole staff had just promised to study the pledge.

“No way,” replied Chretian. “I don’t take that from any candidate.”

By this time, the media entourage was upon her. She dodged. She weaved. And she found herself at Dole’s back.

She tugged his sleeve, getting a reproachful look from a security guard, but the blue-suited candidate turned. She thrust the pledge toward him, smiling but serious.

“I don’t have any problem with it,” said Dole, smiling back. “I think I’ve probably signed it.”

When Chretian assured him that he hadn’t, the candidate took the paper, promised to study it and placed it in his pocket. He turned away, and the media pack passed around her.

Chretian was philosophical about her morning’s work.

“This is not just about getting someone to sign a piece of paper,” she said. “This is about making people aware.”

For the last week, New Hampshire was Mecca to the political world, a multi-ringed circus of candidates, campaign staffs, news media and activists. The state’s granite mountains, snow-covered hills and sometimes even its residents were convenient backdrops.

Satellite trucks rumbled up and down turnpikes to catch candidates addressing the Legislature.

Converted Greyhound buses filled with reporters, photographers and campaign staffs plied the highways to smaller towns.

Activists seeking money for AIDS research, a balanced federal budget, a national sales tax and a return to the gold standard stalked candidates at every stop.

The New Hampshire primary campaign has changed, say longtime residents. It is more about photo opportunities and television commercials, less about ideas and issues.

It is no longer possible to meet a candidate accidentally on the street, and get thoughtful answers on his plans for Bosnia, Medicare or unemployment. But it still is possible to meet every candidate.

CONCORD, N.H. Denise Morgan-Coleman struggled to hold her 2-year-old daughter in one hand and a plate with a blueberry muffin in the other. Daughter Natalie met former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander a few minutes earlier when he stopped by their booth in the Capitol City Diner, and decided the nice man needed a muffin. Morgan-Coleman ordered the muffin as the candidate played “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” on a piano in the diner’s back room with a group of flannel-clad musicians.

She knew to wait for the event to end and the candidate to begin his departure. Mother, daughter and 13-year-old son Jonathan followed Alexander out a side door, and made their presentation.

A few minutes later, back in their booth finishing breakfast, the Manchester teacher explained how she learned her candidate-meeting tactics. She and Jonathan have met nearly every presidential hopeful because the junior-high student, a budding journalist, is on a personal research mission, asking candidates why they want the job.

Alexander told Jonathan he wanted the teenager’s life to be as wonderful as his had been. Jonathan then asked how he planned to keep kids off drugs. Alexander replied he would improve the education system and convince people to take responsibility for their actions. Good answers, mother and son agreed.

Accompanying Jonathan on his search has restored some of her faith in politics, said Morgan-Coleman, 41. Until this year, memories of the Kennedy assassinations and Watergate made her an indifferent voter.

“It’s really painful for people my age,” she said of the political process. “I think I’m looking for wisdom and sincerity in a candidate.”

Many New Hampshire residents take seriously their state’s role in holding the first presidential primary. They are polite to obscure candidates who have more chance of being struck by lightning than being the next president.

What they grumble about is the barrage of negative advertisements. They are turning off their TV sets, and some are turning off to the process.

“It used to be on every street corner you’d meet somebody. Now, it’s come down to ads,” said Paul Simek, 44, owner of Chaplin’s Cafe in downtown Manchester.

The cafe’s music is supplied by a radio. When the music stops, a quick succession of attack ads kicks in.

“Too bad it had to go down to mudslinging,” said Simek.

MILFORD, N.H. When retired judge Robert Rowe saw cars and trucks at a standstill in the town’s center and flashing police lights, he assumed there was a serious traffic accident. As he walked down the sidewalk in the thickening snow, he realized it was another sort of accident. The staffs of two presidential candidates - publisher Steve Forbes and Alexander - inadvertently booked their men into the same small town at the same time. Milford was under siege from two armies of travelling news media.

Rowe, of nearby Amherst, hadn’t heard Alexander would be visiting shops in the town’s center. He knew that Forbes was addressing the Rotary Club in the Community Hall, just a block further, and was headed there.

As he approached the hall, a converted 1830s-era white mansion on a hill, Rowe despaired at the changes in presidential politicking the state has seen.

“New Hampshire has been a state where you could meet every single candidate, at picnics and barbecues,” Rowe said. “It’s different this year because they keep pumping more and more money into (television commercials).”

Some 50 snow-covered reporters clustered on the front steps of the hall. Reporters from CNN and PBS both asked for interviews, which Rowe granted before slipping around the building to a side entrance. Inside, where seven tables were set with white tablecloths and nine place settings, he joked with Robert Blakeman, a retired contractor and Dick Martini, a retired engineer, about the crowd Forbes was drawing. The room was so small that only some of the reporters would be allowed in.

All were eager to hear Forbes, whom they had seen only on television.

He arrived in the middle of lunch, shook hands at every table and took some good-natured Rotarian ribbing about his wealth. Forbes gave as well as he got in the banter, then delivered his standard campaign speech. Afterward, he answered questions about environmental laws, welfare reform and foreign policy.

A good talk, said Blakeman, and the others agreed. Forbes seemed to have his facts down, was fairly relaxed, and articulate. But something troubled Blakeman about the candidate’s flat tax proposal.

“I was in business for myself, so I didn’t have a pension plan. I just invested,” he said. Under Forbes’ tax plan, the income from those investments wouldn’t be taxed; Blakeman wouldn’t owe the federal government a cent.

“I don’t think that’s right. I think you should pay some taxes.”

LACONIA, N.H. Lifelong Republican Jim Wallace has switched candidates three times in as many months. First Dole. Then Forbes. Now Alexander.

Or maybe Dole. Commentator-turned candidate Pat Buchanan is smart, and a good speaker, but probably too conservative, the 52-year-old fuel dealer said as he waited for the start of the Laconia World Championship Sled Dog Derby.

But Wallace wasn’t here just to see mushers begin the 12-mile run to Lake Winnisquam and back. Dole will wave the flag to start the first sled, and Wallace wants a first-hand look at a candidate he respects, even though he doubts Dole can beat Clinton.

Winning is important, he said. Finding someone who can balance the budget and solve the deficit is vital.

“I’m trying to decide.”

As sled dogs yelped and children from nearby Memorial Middle School were released to see a potential future president, Dole arrived in an orange parka.

He worked the crowd gathered behind ropes on either side of the race track. Some teachers tried to quiet charged-up students who shouted for Dole’s attention.

As Dole raised the green flag to start the first sled team, Wallace aimed his camera. He shook the candidate’s hand as he came past the crowd and said a few words to him.

Not to ask about the budget deficit. There wasn’t time for that, Wallace said. But he wished him well, and Dole thanked him.

“I think I decided,” he said.

Dole? he was asked. “Yeah. Well, probably.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 color photos

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: COMING UP Tuesday: New Hampshire primary March 5: Washington precinct caucuses for both parties, Idaho caucuses for Democratic Party only March 26: Washington presidential primary May 28: Idaho primary

This sidebar appeared with the story: COMING UP Tuesday: New Hampshire primary March 5: Washington precinct caucuses for both parties, Idaho caucuses for Democratic Party only March 26: Washington presidential primary May 28: Idaho primary