President Bush won an unconvincing victory in the nation's first primary Tuesday, surviving angry voters who gave conservative challenger Patrick Buchanan a strong second place.
Their futures uncertain because of the gloomy economy, voters said they were sending a loud message to Bush, whom they see as out of touch.
Their messenger was Buchanan, an anti-tax conservative and former news commentator who was winning 41 percent of the vote late Tuesday night. Buchanan's campaign was built around the notion that Bush had betrayed New Hampshire and abandoned his "no new taxes" pledge of 1988.
Buchanan had never run for a public office before. But it seemed clear Tuesday that Bush would surpass the 50 percent Lyndon Johnson received in 1968, shortly before the beleaguered Democrat announced he would not run for re-election amid the depths of the Vietnam war.
"It's clearly a disappointment," Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general who advised Bush's campaign, told the St. Petersburg Times. "I think there's a real political challenge in the weeks ahead to change the mood of this country. I think there is a feeling at the moment that there's a drift here."
But Buchanan's strong showing does not mean Bush will not get the GOP nomination. What it will do is help Buchanan attract more campaign money and publicity as he brings his Reagan-esque message south to Georgia, Florida and other primary states next month.
It means, too, that Bush, who once enjoyed 90 percent approval ratings, will have to pay more attention to the everyday problems of economically uncertain Americans. He may start talking like a conservative, taking a step to the right on taxes or abortion or the military to bring back voters headed to Buchanan, some analysts suggest.
Bush first tried to ignore his GOP challenger here, then tried to make him seem unpresidential while urging voters to blame Congress for their troubles. The Bush strategy did not work: Voters said Buchanan probably wouldn't be their choice in November's general election, but in February's primary they would spend their vote on him to get Bush's attention. About half of voters told ABC they were sending a message by choosing Buchanan.
"I did Buchanan this time as a protest to wake Bush up," said Dawn Richardson, a secretary who cast her vote at a fire house in the small town of Hollis. "I think if he gets 30 percent in the state George will be running scared and he'll have to do some startling things."
Chief on her list of tasks for the president was enacting a health-care program and getting the economy moving.
John Howard, who manages a manufacturing plant, was ready to vote for Bush until he heard a White House spokesman say on the radio Tuesday that a 35 percent vote for Buchanan wasn't enough to send Bush a message.
"That's kind of arrogant. I decided I'll vote for Buchanan," Howard said.
Buchanan spent most of the last 10 weeks here and found fertile ground for his barrage of paid advertisements and campaign lines that questioned Bush's credentials and truthfulness. His most powerful tool was Bush's own statement: "Read my lips: No new taxes."
In 1988, Bush saved his swooning candidacy by promising to avoid taxes. It was a pledge many politicians in this low-tax state had used, and it worked. Bush got 38 percent of the vote in the primary four years ago, and 63 percent of the 1988 general election vote in the heavily Republican state.
Two years later, when President Bush was faced with a growing budget deficit, he and leaders of Congress agreed to raise taxes and cut government programs to raise $500-billion over five years.
Back in New Hampshire, the once-rosy economy was turning dark. The unemployment rate has tripled since 1988, sending a record number of people to welfare rolls and bankruptcy court.
Into this climate came Buchanan, who chastised Bush for "broken promises" on taxes and portrayed Bush as part of the inside-Washington crowd that didn't understand their problems. It didn't help Bush that he and his advisers were slow to concede the country was still mired in a recession last fall.
"If he could have agreed with people a year ago that the economy is bad, then he'd have more support today," said Elaine Walter, a Franklin woman who owns a struggling deli and gas station with her husband.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, Buchanan found more political mileage in Bush's latest tax plan. He blasted Bush when the president called for a $500-per-child tax cut in his State of the Union address but didn't follow through by placing the deduction in the must-pass tax package he sent to Congress. He also said Bush's proposed budget called for billions in new taxes.
Buchanan, a former aide to presidents Nixon and Reagan, painted Bush as a man without an ideological compass and himself as a true-blue conservative. He says he would cut taxes, cut the congressional pay raise and cut U.S. aid to foreign governments.
He practically lived in the state for the last 10 weeks, and his commercials became so familiar that, he joked, schoolchildren were yelling "read my lips" at each other.
Because he campaigned unchallenged here and New Hampshire is a conservative, nearly all-white state, Buchanan did not have much problem answering charges that some of his earlier writings are anti-Semitic and racist. "He was able to avoid being anything but a messenger of protest," said Rath, the Bush adviser.
Bush put on a last-minute campaign blitz here, spending three of the last six days before the primary in the state to meet voters in school auditoriums and shopping malls. His wife, Barbara, probably the more popular one in the couple, campaigned as well.
The president tried to show voters he would listen to their problems. He also aired a commercial with footage of the Persian Gulf war, reminding people of his glory days just a year ago.
But that didn't work. Many people in New Hampshire, like those in Florida and elsewhere, are upset that Bush pays so much attention to foreign affairs.
"This is a vote of no confidence for President Bush," Angela "Bay" Buchanan, who is chairing her brother's campaign, told a local television station Tuesday.
Bush's supporters were trying to downplay the results. They said Buchanan was aided by the withering anti-Bush editorials in the Manchester Union-Leader, and they pointedly noted that the paper won't be around to help in the states ahead on the primary schedule.
In the days leading to the primary, Bush's campaign supporters continually said he would not be embarrased in New Hampshire. State GOP chairwoman Rhona Charbonneau said last week that Buchanan would get 35 percent.