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In N.H., candidates with new tactics pause

On the holiest of football Sundays, even candidates in the Super Bowl of politics call timeouts.

Just two days before the first presidential primary, Republicans and Democrats gave up campaigning before dark. Instead of asking voters to follow them, they followed America's lead. They went to Super Bowl parties.

George W. Bush hosted a party in an airport hangar in Portsmouth. John McCain, a self-described sports fanatic who complained he had not seen a single NFL playoff game, hit two parties, including one hosted by a John Madden in Hopkinton.

No, not that John Madden.

Vice President Al Gore, a Tennessee native, rooted for the Titans in Nashua. Bill Bradley, a Missouri native whose sport is basketball, cheered for the Rams at a bar in Manchester.

Only the Super Bowl rivals the New Hampshire primary for hype and analyses.

The final rush of campaigning here has been remarkably civil. Publisher Steve Forbes, who has not been able to build on his strong second-place showing in the Iowa Republican caucuses a week ago today, has not blasted Bush as much as the Texas governor feared.

Or if he has, no one noticed.

McCain frequently warns about negative campaigning, fearing a last-minute Bush offensive. The Bush campaign, believing the Texas governor has momentum in a race too close to call, chose not to air an ad it prepared that compared McCain's proposed tax cuts to President Clinton's.

Scorched earth tactics are out. More subtle misdirection plays are in.

Bradley, after losing badly in Iowa last week, is finally going after Gore. Oddly enough, the issue he has chosen is abortion.

Beginning in Wednesday night's debate, the former New Jersey senator has argued that Gore once opposed abortion generally and federal funding for abortions in particular. Bradley, who has less support among women than Gore, is airing an ad that describes himself as the only Democrat who always has favored abortion rights.

Gore has supported abortion rights for years now. Bradley's tactics have forced the vice president to defend himself, but there is no evidence Democrats are concerned about his commitment.

At a Saturday afternoon town meeting, Gore fielded more than a dozen questions. Not one concerned abortion.

"He's been seeking to manufacture some differences in some issues where there really are no differences," Gore said of Bradley.

A similar maneuver is playing out on the Republican side.

Although he scrapped the television ad, Bush again portrayed McCain on Sunday as a Clinton-Gore clone on tax policy. The Texas governor has proposed far larger tax cuts than the Arizona senator, who wants to use most of the surplus to shore up the Social Security trust fund.

"It's important our party's nominee have a tax-cut plan that is different than Clinton-Gore," the Texas governor told about 400 listeners jammed into a high school cafeteria in Hudson, "not somebody who sounds exactly like them."

McCain is no more tied to Clinton and Gore than Bush. He rails against the administration's foreign policy and fundraising abuses at every stop. Over seven unscripted town meetings in two days last week, not one voter told McCain his proposed tax cuts are too small.

Each of these jabs, though, is aimed at a larger point.

Bradley is reminding voters that Gore has trouble telling the truth and sticking with a position. Bush is signaling to Republicans that McCain is not really one of them, despite his conservative voting record.

Abortion and tax cuts are not the issues being raised by New Hampshire voters. Even some Republicans at Bush's event Sunday said they couldn't care less about the details of the tax-cut proposals offered by Bush and McCain.

"I don't want them detailing the minutiae of it," said Aleta Nitschke, a Republican from Stratham.

There is considerable concern among voters about health care and the high cost of prescription drugs. Bush is vulnerable there because he speaks in generalities and has no detailed plan.

There also is surprising interest in campaign finance reform and the excesses of the Clinton-Gore team in 1996. Integrity and values, not position papers, are voters' top concerns.

In Lebanon, independent voter Frank Fahey asked Gore to explain why Clinton used the Lincoln bedroom in the White House to reward campaign contributors. He also wanted to know why Gore attended the now infamous fundraiser at a Buddhist temple.

"I made a mistake in the episode you asked me about," Gore replied after a long speech about campaign reforms. "I have learned from that mistake."

Gore never got around to talking about the Lincoln bedroom. Fahey left the meeting still in search of a candidate he could support Tuesday.

"I came in with an open mind," the vocational school administrator said, "but I certainly don't feel any more impressed."

Gore's biggest problems aren't abortion rights or his vision for the future. They are the sins of the past, and they will dog him long after Tuesday's primary.