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In Campaign '96, Weld Is a Hot Commodity

AS far as political calculations go, this one can be done easily on the back of an envelope. But with the pivotal New England primaries at stake, there are a few permutations to consider.

Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, the most influential Republican in New England, was orphaned two weeks ago when his ally, Gov. Pete Wilson of California, dropped out of the race. His phone has been ringing busily every since. Every candidate has called; a few have stopped by.

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While the GOP candidates will focus on each other during their first nomination debate in Manchester, N.H., tonight, buttonholing Mr. Weld may be a main attraction once the cameras turn off. Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas might recall the grand old hunting trips they've taken together. Lamar Alexander could play the family card (his brother once roomed with Weld). Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania can claim ideological kinship.

''Any one of the candidates would take Weld in a heartbeat,'' says Ron Kaufman, a Massachusetts GOP analyst.

The reason is simple. For the first time, the five remaining New England states are banding together in a regional primary two weeks after lead-off New Hampshire. Candidates faltering after the all-Yankee vote probably won't be able to carry on.

But the math is tricky. Weld is an abortion-rights moderate. For those candidates who have pursued religious conservatives - Dole, Gramm, Buchanan, to name three - Weld's endorsement could pose a sticky contradiction.

''On the positive side, Massachusetts is the most important vote on the New England primary day, and Weld is the best-known Republican in the region,'' says political analyst William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute. ''On the negative side, Weld is a problem for anyone going after the religious right. They don't trust him.''

Weld, of course, may decide not to lend out his name again. Those close to him say he may challenge Bay State Sen. John Kerry in 1996. If so, analysts say, he'll remain uncommitted.

Either way, the longer he mulls, the less valuable his endorsement, Mr. Kaufman says. ''Given the short period between now and the primary, it would be hard to transfer the support he had built from Wilson to another candidate,'' he says. ''The coattail effect gets shorter and shorter.''

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