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In Granite State, Candidates Hone Messages and Jab Foes

WITH four days to go until the New Hampshire primary, the four top candidates are refining their messages to address Granite State concerns and gently jabbing at one another's positions.

The hurry-up campaigning reflects the stakes at hand: New Hampshire traditionally determines the nominee or at least winnows the field.

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Standing on a portable podium by the side of his campaign bus here, Steve Forbes fended off questions by reporters that his candidacy is in trouble after his fourth-place finish in Iowa.

Earlier this week, he suspended campaigning and caucused with his top advisers at his New Jersey headquarters. In a tactical shift reflecting a voter backlash against his blizzard of negative ads, Mr. Forbes released three new TV spots designed to promote the positive themes of his campaign.

''Clearly, I spent too much time ... discussing the records of our opponents,'' he said, falling snow dusting his herringbone coat. ''I want to now concentrate on what I'm standing for, how I think America can have a chance to move ahead.'' His new ads promote benefits of the flat tax, medical savings accounts as an alternative to Medicare, and school choice.

Across the town square, former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander relished his new-found fame after beating expectations in Iowa by finishing third. He even chastised a few television reporters for asking basic questions about his positions. ''I never saw a television camera the last time I was here,'' he said.

After winning the endorsement of fellow former Education secretary William Bennett, Mr. Alexander discussed his views with a group of plaid-clad school children.

Clearly feeling a bounce from Iowa, he criticized his rivals for running negative ads and lacking true conservative credentials. ''I have profound respect for Bob Dole, but he doesn't have the vision or the ideas for the job,'' Alexander said. Pat Buchanan's tough approach to trade and Wall Street, he said, is not the stand of a ''true conservative.''

Up the road in Manchester, Mr. Buchanan saved his rhetoric for Senator Dole: ''He's the biggest taxer in the modern history of the Republican Party.'' Noting Dole's support for international trade deals and an effort last year to shore up the Mexican peso, he characterized Dole as ''Mr. NAFTA, Mr. GATT, and Mr. Mexican Bailout.''

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Dole, meanwhile, has taken a sober approach, emphasizing his experience and maturity. With former United Nations Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick at his side, he attacked President Clinton's foreign-policy record.

The senator's tone reflected a slice of personal history. In his two previous bids for the nomination, New Hampshire derailed him. ''This is the one that really counts,'' he said. ''This is the shot that's going to be heard around the world and around America.''

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