NASHUA, N.H. Bill Bradley remained the underdog going into today’s New Hampshire primary against Vice President Al Gore, who clung to a narrow lead in polls yesterday despite Mr. Bradley’s newfound aggressiveness.
“So tomorrow it happens. A year of campaigning and more than 50 town meetings are over,” Mr. Bradley told a hushed audience of high-tech workers at the Oracle New England Development Center here. “I need your help. We’re closing fast in this race. It’s very important.”
Republicans, meanwhile, engaged in the same last-ditch effort to attract voters, abandoning talk of policy in favor of old-fashioned handshaking.
“I think I have a good chance,” front-runner George W. Bush said after campaigning among state workers in Concord. “My message is catching on, there is a lot of energy here.”
Sen. John McCain, Mr. Bush’s main Republican rival who is running neck-and-neck with the Texas governor, for the first time abandoned his cherished town hall meeting in favor of colorful staged political rallies.
“We’re going to take those big money and establishment people and knock them on their ear,” Mr. McCain told supporters in Hanover. “And we’re going to give the government back to the people of this country, my dear friends.”
Most polls show Mr. Bush has erased Mr. McCain’s onetime lead in New Hampshire. A University of New Hampshire/WMUR-TV poll out Sunday, for example, showed Mr. McCain leading 38 percent to 35 percent over Mr. Bush.
A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll late last week showed him up 39 percent to 34 percent.
An American Research Group poll actually showed Mr. Bush up 38 percent to 34 percent over Mr. McCain.
But the Bush people appeared concerned with a new CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll out yesterday that showed Mr. McCain up by 42 percent to 32 percent over the Texas governor.
Mr. Bush’s aides spent the day dismissing the poll, saying it fails to capture the real picture.
“We went from negative one to 10 overnight?” Mr. Bush asked derisively when reporters mentioned the poll.
The long-shot Republican candidates also traveled around New Hampshire yesterday, but one suffered embarrassing episodes.
Gary Bauer, last place among the serious Republican contenders, participated in a pancake flipping contest but tossed one flapjack so vigorously that he fell off the back of the stage.
Mr. Bush managed to flip his pancake about 10 feet in the air and catch it with ease.
Former ambassador Alan Keyes fresh off a strong showing in the Iowa caucuses issued an impassioned last-minute appeal to a standing-room-only crowd of at least 800 in Nashua last night. Mr. Keyes registers only around 10 percent support in most New Hampshire polls, but his supporters seem to be the most impassioned of any of the candidates of either party.
“The most precious thing in this country is not material things,” he told the cheering crowd, which included a large number of young parents and children. “It is our freedom.”
For his part, Mr. Gore turned down the rhetoric yesterday during a dawn-to-dusk sprint for the finish line.
“I’m not here to have any personal characterization of him,” the vice president told reporters at a campaign stop. “I’m interested in confining my campaign to the issues, as I have done from the beginning.”
He added: “If we have disagreements on these issues, which we do, let’s debate them. Let’s talk about them fully and vigorously. But personal attacks? No. I haven’t engaged in them and I will not.”
Although Mr. Bradley yesterday suspended his attacks on Mr. Gore on the issues of abortion and campaign fund raising, he returned to the broader theme that the vice president has routinely lied throughout the campaign.
He added that it was finally time for voters to decide whether Mr. Gore’s rhetoric “is true or untrue.”
“I thought a week before the primary it was important to put these misrepresentations in perspective for the people of New Hampshire so they could make a judgment,” Mr. Bradley said. “It was about time to tell the people what was the truth.”
Even Kathleen Sullivan, chairmen of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, was struck by the acrimonious tone of the contest.
“Frankly, I think there are a lot of committed Democrats, historic Democrats, who are not happy to see the race get as personal as it has gotten,” she told Fox News. “It’s going to be a close race.”
Despite a single-digit advantage in yesterday’s polls, Gore aides insisted their candidate remained the underdog and was taking nothing for granted. New Hampshire voters are notoriously fickle, often making up their minds on the day of the election.
Although Mr. Bradley had been gaining on the vice president since adopting a more aggressive campaign style last week, Mr. Gore hopes to have halted the former New Jersey senator’s momentum.
One poll showed that while Mr. Gore retained a slight advantage among registered Democrats, Mr. Bradley has lost his edge among independents who are likely to cast Democratic ballots. As of yesterday, each candidate had the support of 48 percent of these independents, according to the poll by CNN, Gallup and USA Today.
The number of Gore volunteers swelled to 2,000 over the weekend as officials from the White House and other parts of the Clinton administration left Washington for New Hampshire to campaign for the vice president. The Gore campaign planned a massive phone bank operation, door-to-door visits to voters today and free rides to the polls.
“I’m going to be campaigning full blast, every minute of every hour,” the vice president vowed.
Mr. Bradley was equally hungry for votes, although his aides refused to predict victory.
“I ask for your vote tomorrow,” he told the workers in Nashua. “And I hope you will feel if you cast that vote that you are part of something that is new and fresh. And that we are at a time of a new beginning.”
Andrew Cain in New Hampshire contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.