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May 03. 2011 12:27PM

1988: 'Thank you, New Hampshire'

In 1988, Ronald Reagan was about to step down, and a host of Republicans were hoping the New Hampshire Primary would do for them what it had done eight years before for that popular President.

As Reagan's vice president, George Bush was considered the early front-runner. He also had the backing of New Hampshire's governor, the wily Gov. John Sununu.

But some New Hampshire conservatives remained distrustful of Bush. Many had been shocked by Reagan's 1980 selection of Bush as a running mate after he had battled Reagan for the GOP nomination, calling his tax-cutting plans "voodoo economics."

Bush was also opposed by The Union Leader, whose criticism was unrelenting, despite his having appeared as featured speaker at a Washington, D.C., tribute to the late William Loeb, the newspaper's longtime publisher. Loeb had called Bush a "wimp." Eight years later, the newspaper had not changed its opinion.

After a failed attempt to convince U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick to seek the nomination, The Union Leader endorsed former Delaware governor and congressman Pierre "Pete" du Pont.

Also in the hunt in 1988 was U.S. Sen. Bob Dole, who had competed with Bush and Reagan in the 1980 primary, and who was on the losing 1976 ticket with President Gerald Ford.Two other conservative hopefuls were in the field: U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp of New York and the Rev. Pat Robertson, a televangelist with a national audience and the beginnings of what would become a potent new political force - the Christian Coalition. That force helped Robertson to a second-place finish behind Bob Dole in the Iowa caucuses a week before the Feb. 16, 1988, New Hampshire voting.

Robertson's showing was a shocker, as was Bush's disappointing third place.

But a week later, New Hampshire Republicans would give Bush a 15-point victory margin over Dole, who would then complain about last-minute TV ads placed by Bush (with Sununu's help) that painted Dole as pro-tax.

"I think if it hadn't been for his false advertising the last three days, we would have beaten him," Dole said on primary night.

In a tense notional TV interview, an anchorman asked Dole if he had anything to say to Bush, who was also on camera. "Tell him to stop lying about my record," Dole snapped.

But Dole had not helped himself, he would later concede, by refusing to sign an anti-tax pledge.

Bush, meanwhile, had worked hard after his Iowa setback. In one memorable scene, the patrician vice president drove a forklift truck at a Nashua business.

Bush won with 59,290 votes to Dole's 44,797. Kemp was a disappointing third at 20,114, slightly ahead of du Pont and Robertson.

"Thank you, New Hampshire," exclaimed Bush in his election night victory speech, with Gov. Sununu at his side.

"I think you just don't like being told what to do," Bush told New Hampshire voters in his victory speech. "I think you listen, judge and then decide to do what's right, and I'll never forget it."

The Democrats, vying for the first open Oval Office chair since 1980, also boasted a sizable, if nationally less well-known field. It included Massachusetts Gov. Michael S. Dukakis, U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt of St. Louis, and U.S. Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois.

The Democrats hod their own minister in the person of the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Joining him from the 1984 field was former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart, who had surprised Walter Mondale then and was hoping lightning would strike twice. But Hart would wind up dropping out of — and then back into — the '88 race after allegations of sexual impropriety.

Also running were two men whose names would become more familiar as members of the Clinton administration several years later: Sen. Al Gore of Tennessee and Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt.

Dukakis clearly had to win in New Hampshire. He was a next-door neighbor who had served two non-consecutive terms as the Bay State governor. He was also known as the host of an issues program distributed by PBS. Moreover, his Greek immigrant father had first settled in Manchester.Dukakis had helped himself with anti-nuclear power activists within the state Democratic Party. He had temporarily blocked the licensing of the Seabrook nuclear power plant with his refusal to let Massachusetts participate in federally-required emergency planning.

Win Dukakis did, his 44,112 votes giving him an almost two-to-one margin over Gephardt, who polled 24,513. Simon was third with 21,094.

"A terrific boost; we went for the gold and we won it," Dukakis said of his victory during an Olympic year.

Gephardt, who had won the Iowa caucus, expressed pleasure with second place, saying, "A week ago, they said I couldn't compete in New Hampshire."

But Dukakis would win the Democratic nomination, and Bush the Republican nod, and New Hampshire's tradition held true again.

Bush defeated Dukakis in November, joining the unbroken line of Presidents dating back to Eisenhower in 1952 who had won the New Hampshire Primary.

On election night that November, President-elect George Herbert Walker Bush repeated what he had said nine months before: "Thank you, New Hampshire!"

He would name John Sununu his White House Chief of Staff.


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