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New Hampshire Does It Again

Let's hear it for New Hampshire. The maverick voters in the Granite State have done it again.

Long known as a perilous minefield for establishment candidates, New Hampshire thumbed its nose at not one but two front-runners in the first primary test of the 2000 presidential campaign.

In the Republican race, Arizona Sen. John McCain won a decisive and startling 18-point victory over Texas Gov. George W. Bush, a triumph that - for the moment, at least - seriously undermines what had been one of Bush's most powerful assets: his aura of invincibility.

Yet in some ways, the Democratic outcome was even more unexpected. All the polls leading up to the election pointed to a huge victory for Vice President Al Gore over Bill Bradley.

Gore did manage to win, but through much of the evening the neck-and-neck race was deemed too close to call. And in the end, his 4-point margin was significantly less than what had been projected in the final pre-election polls.

But then confounding the pollsters is part of New Hampshire's engaging perversity. Over the years more than one cynic has suggested that the state's quirky voters purposely mislead the poll takers in an effort to throw them off the scent of an upset in the making.

If so - and mind you, I'm not saying this actually happens - then imagine how much they must enjoy the fruits of their amiable deceptions. On Tuesday, as on so many other primary nights in past years, the message from the New Hampshire electorate to the so-called political experts was a gleeful "Gotcha!"

So now where do we go from here? Well, McCain and Bush are headed for South Carolina, the next major battleground on the Republican campaign map. Voters go to the polls there on Feb. 19, and three days later the spotlight moves west to GOP primaries in Michigan and Arizona, McCain's home turf.

Then it's on to the big shootout on March 7 - "Mega Tuesday" - when Republican delegates will be up for grabs in California, New York and 11 other states.

McCain will need all the momentum he can muster from his impressive win in the Granite State. In recent years, other challengers have pulled off dramatic upsets in New Hampshire (e.g., Paul Tsongas in 1992 and Pat Buchanan four years ago) only to discover, down the road, that voters in other primary states treat front runners with far more respect.

To sustain his campaign over the long haul, the senator desperately needs to narrow the vast money gap that separates his candidacy from Bush's. McCain leaves New Hampshire with a meager bankroll of $1.5 million whereas Bush still has $31.4 million left in his lavish war chest.

One does not need to be an accountant to recognize that McCain needs help - and lots of it - in his struggle to withstand the financial firepower of the Texas governor.

A severe shortage of campaign funds is a fate that befalls most insurgent candidates, which is why they generally run out of steam once the primary pace accelertes. But Bill Bradley is a rare exception to the breed, for he happens to be a challenger with deep pockets.

In fact, on the Democratic side, it is the front runner - the establishment choice - who is on the short end of the financial stick. Vice President Gore moves into the next phase of the campaign with a cash reserve of $5.7 million, compared to Bradley's stash of $8.3 million.

Which brings us to the irony of Tuesday's outcome. Because of the money game - the high-stakes poker that now defines our politics - Bradley "the loser" comes out of New Hampshire in a stronger position to challenge his front-running rival than McCain "the winner" does in his run against Bush.

There are no more Democratic primaries in February. Which means the next confrontation between Gore and Bradley will be in the big showdown on Mega Tuesday.

Thanks to his robust war chest, Bradley has the resources and the organization to compete with Gore on a level playing field, and he is also being driven by the added incentive of personal animus.

The truth is, Bradley never did have much use for Gore, and in their spirited campaign squabbles over the past few weeks, he was unable to conceal his feelings of disdain and contempt for the Vice President. Bradley clearly believes that in some of Gore's attacks on his record he was sandbagged by an unscrupulous opponent, and he is smoldering with resentment.

In conceding victory to Gore , Bradley did not look like a defeated candidate so much as a combat-ready warrior itching for the next battle.

If Gore was watching, he must have recognized that he is up against an implacable foe who is prepared and determined to carry the fight through Mega Tuesday, and beyond to other primaries and perhaps even to the Democratic Convention in Los Angeles next August.

The vice president could not possibly have found that an inviting prospect.

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