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In N.H., today's front-runner likely to be tomorrow's trailer

Who would have thought, a few weeks ago, that wonder boy Bill Clinton would be watching his presidential campaign implode under charges of draft-dodging and womanizing, while priestly Paul Tsongas grew giddy with electoral hope?

Who would have thought, a year ago during the Persian Gulf war, that President Bush would end up having to plead for votes from fellow Republicans?

It proves once again that anything can happen in politics and anything can happen in New Hampshire, where the first presidential primary is five days away.

The picture is changing so fast that predictions are impossible and polls are becoming obsolete overnight.

"Voters are flipping around like fish on the deck of a boat," said Tad Devine, campaign manager for Bob Kerrey.

The campaign only got crazier Wednesday when Clinton released a 1969 letter expressing the depth of his opposition to the Vietnam war and thanking Arkansas military officials for "saving me from the draft." He continued to paint himself as a victim of unethical Republicans and irresponsible media.

New Hampshire voters pride themselves on being unpredictable. But whatever they do Tuesday will affect the rest of the presidential race and the future of the country. It always does.

No candidate has reached the White House since 1952 without first winning New Hampshire. Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman decided not to run for re-election after poor showings in New Hampshire.

The prize for the top vote-getters in New Hampshire is credibility. They finally have the stamp of approval from some real-live voters, even if it's only about a quarter-million people in a tiny, overwhelmingly white state. The approval helps the candidates raise more money and stay in the race.

Those who don't do well in New Hampshire often find contributions drying up and confidence in their candidacies waning. The major candidates have all sworn that no matter what happens in New Hampshire, they will stay in the race until Super Tuesday, when Florida and Texas vote on March 10. We'll see.

With the election ever nearer, the candidates' attacks on each other are escalating, and the spin is becoming shameless.

"I never thought I'd win here," Bill Clinton claimed in a New Hampshire television interview.

Yeah, right.

Clinton is beginning to look like an Olympic skier who suddenly tumbles into a wild cartwheel of skis and snow and broken bones. He might have to be carried out of New Hampshire on a stretcher.

The Arkansas governor was soaring in the polls, drawing enthusiastic crowds and looking like a shoo-in to win the primary until a tabloid published a story about his love life. Now there's the flap about whether he dodged the draft in Vietnam, and his slippery responses don't help. Polls show Clinton losing ground every day in New Hampshire, running second to Paul Tsongas.

But Clinton insists that voters care more about the issues than about his personal life. He is still drawing crowds and contributions. The New York Times noted Wednesday that 7,000 people in New Hampshire called Clinton headquarters to get copies of his platform, while no more than 3,000 there bought copies of the Star with Gennifer Flowers on the cover.

In a television commercial, Clinton tells New Hampshire, "Look what's really at stake in this election: your home, your health, your job, your future. On Tuesday, New Hampshire can make history. Send a message to Washington and Wall Street and to the tabloids. Control your own destiny. This is your election, your economy, your country. Take it back."

He has bought 30 minutes on New Hampshire television this weekend for a call-in show.

Tsongas, the former Massachusetts senator, seems to be attracting the disappointed Clinton supporters.

Tsongas is defined by his grim economic message, a vision of the American economy headed toward collapse or slow death unless the manufacturing base is rebuilt. He is solidly pro-business on the economy but liberal on social issues.

To say Tsongas is solemn is an understatement. Humorist Dave Barry says, "This is a man so low-key that he may be capable of photosynthesis." Tsongas has been taking speech lessons so he won't mumble, but he's so uncharismatic that one of his commercials begins, "He's no movie star, but .



Now that he's the front-runner, Tsongas is being bombarded with questions about his fight with cancer. He left the U.S. Senate in 1984 after discovering he had lymphoma, and a bone marrow transplant saved his life. Doctors now consider him cured, but voters may be harder to convince.

Tsongas has been campaigning in New Hampshire since last summer and lives just five miles away in Lowell, Mass. If he wins, the victory is likely to be written off as a regional fluke. And Tsongas concedes he has no campaign strategy beyond New Hampshire except to "be the last man standing" after the Southern primaries.

So expect to hear a lot of talk about getting a better, stronger, more electable Democrat into the race. The first name most people mention is Mario Cuomo's.

A Draft Cuomo movement is under way in New Hampshire with television commercials urging people to write in Cuomo's name. The New York governor says he won't discourage "the little glimmer of Don Quixote in their souls," but he's still not a candidate.

Fighting to stay alive in the race are two real candidates, U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Bob Kerrey of Nebraska. Harkin swept the Iowa caucuses Monday night, as expected, but that probably won't help him much in New Hampshire.

Kerrey's failure to win over the voters may be the real surprise in this race. Billed as the brilliant and charismatic war hero, he instead has been described by New Hampshire voters as vague and monotonous. Somehow he thinks that telling voters he has a vision for "fundamental change" is enough.

"He doesn't seem to have a need to clarify," said Dave Eastman, 48, a voter from Eaton, N.H. "People around here may believe in your concept, but they want to know how you're going to do it."

Kerrey periodically changes his message and persona. This week, he wants to be the new John Kennedy. Kerrey brought Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan with him to New Hampshire on Tuesday to say: "It is time for a new generation to lead this nation. John Kennedy was right then, and Bob Kerrey is right today."

Kerrey's aides swear he's going to connect with the voters any day now, just in time for the primary.

Then there are the Republicans, George Bush and Pat Buchanan, the president and the columnist, both trying to prove they're just regular guys.

Buchanan stopped by a New Hampshire auto shop recently to chat with the mechanics. According to the Boston Herald, Buchanan picked up a small cylindrical object from a counter and asked if it was a distributor cap.

The mechanic answered: "It's an ashtray."

By the time you read this, I will have packed my fur-lined boots and caught a plane back to New Hampshire for the last, chaotic days of campaigning. My colleague from the St. Petersburg Times' Washington bureau, David Dahl, is already there.

Along with our campaign stories, I will write a column in a few days about ways that Florida voters might interpret the outcome in New Hampshire. The voters there may not be looking for the same things in a candidate that you are.