MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Alexander Haig pulled out of the crowded GOP presidential contest today, ending his campaign with a sharp blast at Vice President George Bush and backing Bush's chief rival, Sen. Robert Dole.
Describing himself as 'the darkest of the dark horses,' the 63-year-old former secretary of state and former NATO commander, became the first GOP casualty of 1988 after finishing last in this week's Iowa caucuses.
He said early GOP skirmishes 'make it clear that Al Haig will not be the Republican candidate in 1988. ... Therefore, I am announcing today my withdrawal as a candidate' and his endorsement of Dole.
Haig's campaign consistently ran at the back of the six-way GOP fight, and his withdrawal was expected to add only slightly to Dole's tally, but the shift could be potentially damaging to Bush in New Hampshire where he is looking for a solid victory after a third-place showing in Iowa.
Bush, appearing on a local radio station, said he did not believe Haig's backing of Dole would 'make one iota of difference.'
'It's been quite personal with him,' Bush said, referring to Haig's jabs at him in televised debates among the candidates. 'I've never really understood it. But I have no hard feelings for him.'
Haig said he had nothing against Bush -- 'a friend I have known for 20 years' -- but said Dole was 'head and shoulders above George Bush as a potential president.'
Haig met with Dole two days ago to inform him of his decision, and told reporters he opted to get out before the primary because he did not want to be so 'arrogant' as to take 'the few percentage points that could be so crucial to (another candidate) to the political grave.'
Dole, who arrived about 20 minutes late at the nearly snow-bound news conference, called Haig 'an American patriot' and said he was 'very, very grateful' for the endorsement. 'I appreciate this very much. I won't let you down. I'll work hard. This is a close race in New Hampshire.'
The retired four-star general heaped praise on Dole and was disparaging about Bush, saying in response to a question about whether Bush was electable, 'No, I frankly do not' believe he can win.
And asked if he was saying Bush 'has been there and not been a player throughout these seven years,' replied, 'I think he's been there, period.'
In endorsing Dole and criticizing Bush, Haig said, 'Our next president should not be a man who offers simply more of the same.' Dole, he said, 'is the candidate best able to lead our country in the '90s.'
Haig's announcement came as a major winter storm ripped through New Hampshire, snarling candidates' campaign schedules four days before the Feb. 16 primary.
Gusting winds accompanied the snow, which was falling at the rate of two inches per hour in some parts of the state. Forecasters, who said the storm may be the biggest of the year, predicted up to 1 feet of snow would fall in the central part of the state, with up to 2 feet in the North country.
Haig -- who left as President Reagan's first secretary of state after 17 months on the job complaining about sniping from within the top ranks of White House advisers -- was the first in the crowded GOP field to make strong attacks on Bush.
While Bush was arguing he was the 'copilot' of the Reagan administration, Haig was telling voters that the 'copilot' had either not been in the cockpit, been riding back in tourist class, flown the wrong way or crashed. And at the first GOP debate last year he sent Bush reeling by demanding that Bush explain his participation in the Iran-Contra affair.
Bush, meanwhile, facing polls that show his New Hampshire lead slipping, took his campaign around the state Thursday and denied Tuesday's primary had become a 'last stand' for his White House hopes in the wake of a stinging third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses this week.
His aides stopped talking about Bush as the overwhelming favorite, however, and tried to play down expectations for how he will do in a conservative state where President Reagan's administration has broad support.
'The bump is a bump,' Bush spokesman Peter Teeley said of Dole's momentum out of Iowa. 'We're going to have to fight Dole. Essentially, it's a dead heat.'
On the Democratic side of the fray, Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis, the next-door neighbor clearly favored next week, largely avoided attacks on his competitors Thursday while Rep. Richard Gephardt of Missouri and Sen. Paul Simon of Illinois continued their increasingly bitter war of words.
Simon, who polls show now running third among the seven major Democrats in New Hampshire, began a new series of television and radio advertisements charging Gephardt with flip-flopping on positions to fit his campaign.
'There has been a lack of consistency and I think that has been very clear,' Simon said of Gephardt after a speech at Dartmouth College in Hanover.
'I'm disappointed in Paul Simon,' countered Gephardt without responding to specifics. 'This is not the Paul Simon I know. He's my friend. I like him. I think he's taking bad advice from consultants.'
Separate polls by national news media tandems and Boston-area news outlets show Bush with a narrower lead over Dole in New Hampshire following the Iowa one-two punch of Dole and former television evangelist Pat Robertson.
Bush, clearly concerned, has canceled stops in other parts of the country to focus on New Hampshire. He spent Thursday on a vigorous motorcade tour through the southern part of the state, frequently pausing for photo opportunities.
At an East Hampstead lumberyard, the vice president operated a forklift clad in a ski jacket and baseball cap. In Greenland, he made a similar appeal to the working class voter by driving a semi-trailer truck.
Speaking to senior citizens in Portsmouth, he even defended directly his reserved, low-key image, pleading: 'Don't take that private side of me as a lack of passion. I'm working my heart out here. I care too much to leave now.'
Asked about his chances, Bush said, 'This is not a last stand at all.' Asked what he could do to win, he replied, 'The same thing Reagan did in 1980 to stop my surge.'
Bush defeated Reagan in Iowa in the 1980 presidential campaign but then lost New Hampshire and eventually the party's nomination.
Elsewhere in the GOP field Thursday, Robertson addressed the Legislature, lacing his remarks with patriotic and populist themes in an effort to appeal to conservatives beyond his religious following. He won restrained applause.
In Boston, Rep. Jack Kemp of New York and former Delaware Gov. Pete du Pont, each vying for a strong third place next week to keep their campaigns alive, criticized Bush and Dole. But both got the biggest rise from 1,500 partisans at the Massachusetts GOP's Lincoln Day Dinner by bashing Dukakis.
Du Pont knocked the governor's role in blocking the federal licensing of the controversial nuclear plant in Seabrook, N.H., near the Massachusetts border.
Dukakis traveled to Seabrook Thursday to declare, 'The last thing in the world we should be doing is building more of these things.' The plant has not opened because he will not allow his state to participate in an evacuation plan for a facility he and many other officials consider unsafe.