A Look Back: The 1992 N.H. Primary


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 02-02-2020 10:05 PM

WEST LEBANON — A generation ago, a crowded field of Democrats were running in the 1992 New Hampshire presidential primary, hoping to unseat a Republican incumbent who many voters thought was out-of-touch on the domestic front, especially regarding the economic concerns of hard-working families.

And there was friction for President George H.W. Bush within his own party, with many conservatives upset that he had broken his “no new taxes pledge.”

Among Democrats, a former senator from neighboring Massachusetts, Paul Tsongas, was calling himself “the economic Paul Revere,” sounding an alarm about falling real wages for workers and the country’s rising national debt.

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown and U.S. Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Bob Kerrey, D-Nebraska, were also among the candidates. And a new kid on the block, Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, was running as a “new Democrat,” pledging a more centrist government while also talking about the economy and other issues important to everyday Americans.

Because Harkin was from Iowa, the caucus results there were a foregone conclusion, making the 1992 New Hampshire primary all the more important for the Democratic candidates.

Tsongas had the homefield New England advantage, though Clinton had strong supporters, including in the Claremont area, but faced questions about his efforts to avoid the draft during the Vietnam War and his apparent tomcatting with the likes of Gennifer Flowers.

In the weeks before the Feb. 18 New Hampshire primary, Clinton fudged his way through a high-profile interview on 60 Minutes, with his wife Hillary Rodham Clinton by his side, and also appealed directly to voters on the campaign trail.

“I’ll tell you something. I’m going to give you this election back, and if you’ll give it to me, I won’t be like George Bush. I’ll never forget who gave me a second chance, and I’ll be there for you till the last dog dies,” Clinton told voters in Dover, N.H.

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On the Republican front, Buchanan, a syndicated columnist and former speechwriter for Richard Nixon, calledfor phasing out foreign aid and had said in his announcement speech, “Today we call for a new patriotism, where Americans begin to put the needs of Americans first. For a new nationalism, wherein every negotiation, be it arms control or trade, the American side seeks advantage and victory for the United States. ...”

Bush fought back, of course, even sending First Lady Barbara Bush to campaign in Lebanon 11 days before the primary, where she defended her husband on the economy. “The signs are all out there. Every economist says it’s going to be all right, and it is,” she told local reporters on the visit.

In the end, Tsongas won the Democratic primary handily with 33% of the vote, but Clinton finished a respectable second, with almost 25%, and thanked New Hampshire for making him “the Comeback Kid.” He went on to do well in Super Tuesday states, though Brown won a handful of states, including Vermont, in the Democratic contests.

Buchanan won an eye-popping 37.4% in the New Hampshire Republican primary, exposing how vulnerable Bush, who got 52.9%, might truly be in the general election.

In November, Clinton won 370 electoral votes to 168 for Bush, but the outcome was also clearly affected by the independent candidacy of businessman Ross Perot, who won 19.7 million votes, almost 19% of the popular vote.

As for purple New Hampshire, in the general election Clinton defeated Bush by less than 7,000 votes, as Perot took 121,337 votes in the Granite State.

John P. Gregg can be reached at jgregg@vnews.com.