Making Mr. Right: A 1996 Assembly Kit

HE'S A MODERATE CONSERVATIVE IN his 50s, committed to jobs and deep cuts in government spending, but flexible enough in his views that he'll listen to others. He won't raise taxes, but he also won't insult voters with another "read my lips" pledge. He's held major elective office, as a vice president, a governor or a senator. He's served in the military and achieved some business success, but not so much that his wealth puts him out of touch with those who struggle. He's a parent, with a spouse more interested in charitable good works than in public policy. He might have smoked some marijuana in college, even inhaled, but never touched cocaine.

For at least 12 New Hampshire Republicans, that's the basic anatomy of the ideal 1996 presidential candidate--Mr. Right, so to speak. The group of seven men and five women was brought together last week for NEWSWEEK by New England Interviewing of Bedford, N.H. to discuss what they wanted in their next standard-bearer. The panel reflected the state's legendary antitax sentiment, as well as raw memories of the recent recession: economic concerns dominated the discussion. Above all, they made it clear that there was no appetite for another mercurial outsider like Ross Perot, who possessed leadership skills but no practical political experience. "He put a real negative damper on that." said Tom Dors, 54, who voted for Perot in 1992,

The group also illustrated the deep divisions that abortion generates within the party: half regarded it as a major campaign issue. Among those panelists, four were opposed to abortion. Near the end of the two-hour session, moderated by COP polltaker Frank Luntz, most of the panel concluded that no one in the current field of likely contenders met their specifications. Nor did they expect one to emerge. "The ideal doesn't exist," said Ken Murphy, 57, a computer consultant who supported Pat Buchanan in the state's 1992 primary.

Yet the group still had strong opinions about those who may be running. Asked to set aside their composite and pick a fleshand-blood nominee, seven of the 12 favored former vice president Dan Quayle. The remaining five chose among former HUD secretary Jack Kemp (two), Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm and California Gov. Pete Wilson (one apiece). Quayle is no moderate and has little track record in business, but several valued his experience as George Bush's understudy. Susan Lazos, 37, a housewife who voted for Bush, said she met Quayle when he visited the state and came away "surprised at how intelligent he was." Where Perot was tested in the crucible of national attention and found wanting, others admired Quayle for his resilience in the face of a hostile press. "Gore makes just as many gaffes as Quayle, and you don't hear about them," said Jerry Johnson, 44, a Bush supporter in 1992.

Focus groups don't necessarily reflect voter support, Quayle's popularity is no better than middling in the state right now. A Boston Herald poll of registered Republicans last month placed him fourth in a trial heat behind former Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Colin Powell, Senate Majority Leader-to-be Bob Dole and Kemp. (He does better nationally, running second in the recent Wall Street Journal/NBC survey.) He also carried a hefty 40 percent unfavorable rating. But Luntz, who helped Buchanan and Perot energize an angry electorate in 1992, and who assisted in crafting this fall's COP "Contract With America," was struck by the intensity of support for Quayle. "He's got a core constituency [pro-life, anti-Washington, anti-press] that's as hard as nails," said the polltaker, who has spoken with several COP hopefuls about 1996 consulting work. The focus group offered little encouragement for other major names. Gramm scarcely drew a mention. Dole was written off by panelists as too old, too nasty and a creature of Congress. "A Republican LBJ," one member said. Powell was widely admired but considered too much of a blank slate, "No one knows who he is, what he stands for," said Johnson. Yet nearly everyone saw him as a vice president. gaining seasoning for a run of his own.

For some panelists, the ideal candidate is the one they can't have: Ronald Reagan. "He got the American people to believe in themselves, that good things could happen," said Ken Murphy. "He picked up the big stick and gave them hope." The candidate who convincingly carries that stick will go a long way toward proving to skeptical voters that he's Mr. Right.

< b>THE CONTENDERS

Focus-group members seemed to feel the same way about Quayle as about George Bush in 1988--that vice presidential experience entitled him to consideration as a presidential candidate. "He's been there," said one supporter.

Memories of Dole's temper during the 1088 New Hampshire campaign remain vivid. "He just seemed like a mean person," said one woman in the group. Others said his time has passed. "He's been a Washington insider for too long," observed another.

"A born leader," said one admiring panelist. Others in the group agreed but said the retired JCS chairman needed more experience. Nearly everyone saw him as the perfect veep. A Quayle-Powell ticket would be "absolutely unstoppable," said one.

The Texas senator has been campaigning in New Hampshire but hasn't made much of an impression on panel members. Their comments suggest his hard-line conservatism could work against him. "You don't want someone hellbent," said one.