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Candidates Make Final Run For Votes In Pivotal Primary

By Mark Z. Barabak and Cathleen Decker
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- MANCHESTER, N.H.

From the notches in the north to the suburbs in the south, New Hampshire was alive Sunday with the sounds of stumping, as seven would-be presidents swarmed the state 48 hours before its make-or-break primary.

Democrats Al Gore and Bill Bradley traded some of the sharpest barbs of their increasingly contentious campaign. Bradley accused front-running Gore of jumping “into bed with special interests.” Gore charged Bradley with lying to boost his prospects. Each accused the other of dragging their contest into the gutter.

On the Republican side, Texas Gov. George W. Bush sparred with rival John McCain over who is more ready to step into the Oval Office.

“There’s only one man who is fully prepared. I am fully prepared,” Sen. McCain of Arizona, the front-runner here, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation,” Bush parried, “I am the one person in this race who has been elected to an executive position. I have been in the position of setting agendas, of making decisions.”

The frenetic activity was just the run-up to Monday’s final frenzy, as candidates girded their get-out-the-vote operations. Given the compressed electoral calendar, the contest here has shaped up as the pivotal event of the warp-speed campaign season.

McCain and Bradley have the most at stake. McCain skipped last week’s Iowa caucuses to concentrate his efforts here. Bradley may wish he had as well, after suffering a nearly 2-to-1 thumping in the caucuses. Both need a win to ignite their candidacies, and New Hampshire’s harsh landscape, with its penchant for rewarding the rugged, may offer the most hospitable terrain either insurgent will face.

“You can fairly easily see how Bush or Gore can survive a loss in New Hampshire,” said Washington political analyst Charles Cook, citing the big edge the two front-runners enjoy among their parties’ core constituents. “But it’s the do-or-die state for McCain and Bradley. I don’t see how they can have a plausible shot at winning the nomination without winning in New Hampshire.”

Campaigning in the far north, Gore launched one of his most pointed attacks on Bradley, drawing a roar of approval from a crowd of more than 1,000.

“He can’t defend his own proposals, and so he’s committed foul after foul,” the vice president shouted. “Instead of the promise of character, courage and commitment, we have manipulative attack after manipulative attack.”

Gore’s campaign distributed a joint statement by the House and Senate Democratic leaders, Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri and Tom Daschle of South Dakota, saying they were concerned that Bradley’s campaign “has taken a sharp negative turn.”

In Nashua, Republican Steve Forbes once more took up the tax cudgel, questioning whether Bush would truly deliver on a promised $483 billion tax cut. “It’s a weak proposal on the table, leaving all the Washington gravy trains on the track,” Forbes charged at a press conference.