1992: A rebuke - and the end of a record
May 03. 2011 12:28PM
The Comeback Kid.
"Read My Lips."
The catch phrases of the 1992 New Hampshire Primary lingered long after.
So did the realization that, for the first time since the modern primary began in 1952, the man who would win the White House that fall did so without first winning in New Hampshire.
Even so, the maverick Granite State voter had once again sent a message heard throughout the land - this time in the form of a stinging rebuke for the incumbent who would lose the White House that fall.
A record voter turnout also reminded Granite Staters, and the nation, that we take seriously our first-in-the-nation role.
"We've not seen anything like this before. Something really struck a chord with the voters," said Secretary of State William Gardner of the 351,847 voters - 62 percent of those registered. That "something" may have been the economy, which was in a tailspin after the heady 1980s.
New Hampshire had fallen farther than almost any other state. Its five largest banks had been seized by the federal government. Homes were repossessed and companies cut back workers and froze wages.
A year earlier, President Bush had been riding record approval ratings for the successful Desert Storm war against Iraq. Most big-name Democrats had decided not to challenge him. A Republican challenge was unthinkable.
But in December 1991, Patrick Buchanan did the unthinkable, launching a last-minute, shoestring operation. With the editorial endorsement of The Union Leader and the help of former U.S. Rep. Charles Douglas, Buchanan painted Bush as an out-of-touch elitist who had "walked away from the conservative base of his own party."
Over and over, on radio and TV and in print, Buchanan reminded voters of Bush's 1988 "Read my lips, no new taxes" pledge, which the President had subsequently broken in an agreement with Democrats in Congress.
"For an incumbent President to be humbled by a journalist who had never run for public office was unprecedented," wrote former Gov. Hugh Gregg in his book "Always First, Always Right... but Once."
Gregg and his son, Gov. Judd Gregg, chaired Bush's campaign.
Bush had won the New Hampshire primary, of course. But Buchanan had gained 37 percent of the vote, foreshadowing what would happen in the fall.
On the Democratic side, again a Massachusetts neighbor was counting on New Hampshire in 1992.
Paul Tsongas, who had left the U.S. Senate to fight cancer, was expected to win and he did, gaining 33 percent of the vote in a crowded field and even finishing third, behind Buchanan, on the Republican side with 2.1 percent of the votes via write-ins.
But nearly as much attention went to Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, who pronounced himself the "Comeback Kid" with his second-place finish to Tsongas.
Buffeted by repeated charges of draft-dodging and womanizing, Clinton had dropped in pre-primary opinion polls.
On Primary night, his camp convinced many in the national news media that his 24.7 percent showing that day was a moral victory and a major comeback.
Behind Clinton in the voting were U.S. Sen. Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin of Iowa and former California Gov. Jerry Brown. (Harkin's home-state connections and Buchanan's lack of financing and time there had seriously diminished the 1992 Iowa caucuses as a factor.) Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder had ceased campaigning in January, but the nation's first-elected black governor's name remained on the ballot.
The 1992 Primary, held on Feb. 18, set several records. The 62 percent turnout by registered voters dwarfed the 51.2 percent mark set in 1980. There was also a record field - 25 Republicans, 36 Democrats and one Libertarian. And former Minnesota Gov. Harold Stassen, at age 84, made his 10th bid for the Presidency.
On November 3, 1992, Bill Clinton and Al Gore beat incumbents George Bush and Dan Quayle, ending New Hampshire's record for accurately picking Presidents. Independent Ross Perot pulled 19 percent of the national vote.
In New Hampshire, Clinton became the first Democrat since Lyndon Johnson in 1964 to win New Hampshire's four electoral votes. It was close. Clinton got 209,040 popular votes (38.9 percent); Bush had 202,484 (37.7 percent); and Perot gained 121,337 (22.5 percent).