Crazy for Bush?

There are basically two kinds of New Hampshire voters. The first kind--not very different from those in the rest of the country--is represented by Frank Claik, a local dignitary from Littleton, who recently shook hands with George W. Bush. Claik is a former Democrat who switched parties out of disgust with Bill Clinton; he now says he is a Bush man. Was there a particular policy of Bush's that attracted his support, I ask. Some program? "Well, that's a tough question," Claik says. "I guess I think he's by far the best Republican, and that's why I'm for him." An idea? Perhaps an aura? "I'd have to think about it," he finally replies. Claik is the chairman of a local Republican organization.

So far this sort of thing has not been a problem for Bush. For several months, he has been running a presidential campaign of exquisitely calibrated nonspecificity for the Frank Claiks of the country, folks who like winners more than they care about the finer points of policy.

But New Hampshire has another kind of voter: Bruce Pettigill¬ólarge, potbellied, and unafraid. In November, Pettigill watched Bush give his third major education-policy speech in front of the Northern White Mountain Chamber of Commerce at the Town & Country Motor Inn in Gorham, New Hampshire. The inn has three framed photographs hanging on the lobby wall, half obscured by a postcard rack: one of Richard Nixon with the inn's staff, and two of the inn's owners posing with George Bush, Sr. Like his father before him, George W. knows his way around the White Mountains. But after the speech, when I ask Pettigill and his friend Mary Ann whether they are Republicans, I get an answer that should strike a bit of fear into the heart of any Bush campaign staffer.

"I'm a New Hampshire-ite," says Mary Ann.

"I'm a maniac," says Pettigill. "I vote on the issues. I don't care who belongs to what party."

"Issues," of course, were the whole point of the speech Pettigill just listened to. He is not impressed. Most of the other people at the Gorham breakfast are wearing suits for the occasion. Pettigill is wearing a neon green T-shirt, shorts, a baseball cap, vintage aviator glasses, and an air of irreverent pugnacity that comes with the knowledge that he can drag an enormously popular candidate to a state with one-sixteenth as many potential voters as Texas. "Well, I'm glad he came up here so we could get a look at him," says Pettigill, as though Bush were a prize hog. "He talked about some important things-education, character. But he didn't give us a whole lot of detail." What kind of detail, I ask. "How the hell they're gonna GET IT ALL DONE," he bellows jovially. "How will he get it through Congress? Where's the money going to come from?"

Pettigill is the kind of New Hampshire voter who eats front-runners for breakfast. Unfortunately for Bush (and Al Gore), the state tends to produce more Bruce Pettigills than Frank Claiks. Bill Clinton lost here to Paul Tsongas in 1992, and Pat Buchanan's 1996 defeat of Bob Dole accounts for a large part of the seriousness with which Buchanan's current bid is taken. As of late November, John McCain had drawn even with Bush in the state polls. Can George W. tame the maniacs of New Hampshire?