The Washington Times

New Hampshire is a state that, more often than not, behaves like a good, respectable citizen in deciding the winners in the nation’s first presidential primaries. The esteem in which these flinty “independent-minded” New Englanders are held has to do first and foremost with their ability to sort out the field and pick the winners. Bob Dole, running for the Republican nomination in 1996, took occasion to observe that the winning Republican in New Hampshire would end up the nominee. He based that statement on New Hampshire voters’ perfect record from 1968 to 1992 in bestowing victory upon the man who would go on to win the Republican nomination.

Yet the New Hampshire electorate is not invariably respectable and orthodox – as Mr. Dole himself discovered when Pat Buchanan won the 1996 Republican primary there. Occasionally, the flinty independent-mindedness veers into eccentricity. This is, in truth, a more common occurrence on the Democratic side. Gary Hart beat Walter Mondale there in 1984, and Paul Tsongas beat Bill Clinton in 1992.

Is 2000 a year for orthodoxy or eccentricity? One might think that such a question can only be answered retrospectively, and that asking it in advance makes the assumption that the New Hampshire results will do little to shape the subsequent races; they will only validate (or spurn) foreordained conclusions about who the eventual nominee will be. It will probably not come as a surprise to readers of this column that I am comfortable with that assumption.

It would be a cataclysmic event for the Democratic Party to deprive a sitting vice president of the nomination in times of peace and prosperity. The party establishment long ago concluded that Al Gore was going to be the standard-bearer in 2000 and mobilized accordingly. And although it is somewhat unfashionable to make the point in a political culture so in love with the idea of the maverick – the outsider stepping in to clean up the town – in most circumstances party establishments do actually have a good command of the sentiment among the party rank-and-file. They know their voters – what their voters want, how to appeal to them, etc.

“Clinton fatigue” will not be enough to unseat Mr. Gore. Democrats have extremely complicated feelings about Mr. Clinton. But the idea that the 2000 presidential nominating process would shape up primarily as the occasion for Democrats themselves to repudiate Mr. Clinton by turning against Mr. Gore is and has always been fanciful.

On the Republican side, there is the George W. Bush phenomenon. The Texas governor is no less the choice of his party’s establishment than Mr. Gore is of his. Yet once again, in poll after poll, one finds rank-and-file Republicans mainly in accord with the members of this establishment. If there are reservations about George W. Bush, and there are, among his supporters, they turn on whether he will be able to maintain his lead against Al Gore in the face of a coming Gore onslaught. These reservations do not even remotely extend to serious reconsideration of their support for Mr. Bush, in the sense of contemplation of an alternative to him.

In Iowa, the caucuses are a test of a campaign’s organizational prowess, the sheer grind of identifying supporters and turning them out for an hours-long exercise in political jawboning on a cold winter’s night. The results this year accurately reflected the strength of the front-runners and illuminated the difficulties faced by challengers – the would-be white knights trying to upend established powers.

New Hampshire is different, of course. Every now and again, voters there display a fondness for white knights. The process offers some encouragement to this propensity by allowing independents to vote in either primary contest. In the event that voters indulge it this time, however, it strikes me as far less likely to create new political reality relevant to the 2000 contest than to create a footnote comparable to “Paul Tsongas, 1992” and “Pat Buchanan, 1996.”

Orthodoxy or eccentricity in New Hampshire this year? Given 1992 and 1996, maybe orthodoxy is overdue. Let’s call it this way: George W. Bush beats John McCain by 2 percentage points and beats Steve Forbes by 20. Al Gore beats Bill Bradley by 12 percentage points.