With 48 hours to go before a vote that may well halve the eight-strong field, the former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander could overtake both the faltering Bob Dole and Pat Buchanan, the conservative commentator fighting charges of extremism and alleged links with white supremacists.
Two polls yesterday showed Mr Alexander advancing into a virtual three- way tie for the lead: one by CNN giving him 20 per cent support, behind Mr Dole and Mr Buchanan with 26 per cent and 25 per cent, the other poll, by a local television station, suggesting he is running second to Mr Dole. The threat is now sufficiently serious to force Mr Dole to turn his advertising fire on Mr Alexander, branding him a ''tax and spend'' liberal, the ultimate sin in tax-loathing New Hampshire.
Mr Alexander hit back by asserting he was the only source of new ideas, including a massive devolution of powers to the states, a part-time ''Citizens' Congress'' and a new branch of the military to protect US borders from illegal immigrants.
''It's sad Bob Dole can't think of one fresh idea,'' he said. ''He has no ideas, while Pat Buchanan has the wrong ideas.''
But for a man who claims to stress the positive, Mr Alexander is relying to an extraordinary extent on negatives: that he is not as rancorous as Mr Buchanan, not as old as Bob Dole, and not a political novice like Steve Forbes, the publishing magnate whose star is waning after his fourth- place showing in last week's Iowa caucuses. At bottom, Mr Alexander insists, he is the one candidate who would not be beaten by President Bill Clinton in a general election.
He has been lucky. Questions last week about his business dealings, which critics liken to a Whitewater-in-waiting, were eclipsed by the media rumpus over Larry Pratt, the Buchanan campaign co-chairman linked with the right-wing militia movement.
''I told people what I was doing, and my tax returns are out there,'' insists Mr Alexander, a self-made millionaire many times over. But doubts persist over several transactions when he was governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987, among them a 1981 purchase of a $1 share option that became stock Mr Alexander sold for $620,000 (pounds 415,000). Should he emerge strongly from New Hampshire the media spotlight upon them will turn white-hot.
Meanwhile, through the smoke and fury, aspects of the contest are becoming clearer. Mr Forbes, who has spent $20m of his money and only a fortnight ago was in the lead in New Hampshire, now hints he may withdraw if he does badly on Tuesday. Phil Gramm, the conservative Senator whose campaign collapsed last week, was expected to endorse Mr Dole.
But many Republicans are depressed by the tawdry spectacle; its nastiness was thrown into relief by President Bill Clinton's visit on Saturday. Just as he did in Iowa a week earlier, Mr Clinton swept through New Hampshire, preaching good cheer and drawing crowds 10,000-strong, displaying an enthusiasm of which the bickering Republican candidates could but dream.
The contest may be a cliffhanger. But with the exception of the religious right, fired by Mr Buchanan's oratory, the feeling of many Republican voters in New Hampshire is: None of the above.
Inside the party establishment the mood is darker still, haunted by the nightmare that Mr Buchanan could win the nomination and fearful that, even if Mr Dole limps to victory, Mr Buchanan has opened enough of a split between moderates and conservatives in Republican ranks to doom it to defeat in the autumn. An editorial in the Wall Street Journal, a Republican bulletin board, warned the party was stumbling into the political wilderness. "The only people who can be nominated are people who can't win," it said.Reuse content