GOP maverick battles to save job

April 05, 2002|By Jules Witcover

LONDONDERRY, N.H. -- In the Republicans' hopes to regain control of the Senate in November, no incumbent seeking re-election is in more peril than Bob Smith, the tall and hulking maverick. He quit the GOP briefly on a fool's errand bid for the presidency as an independent and then embarrassingly slipped back into the fold.

Mr. Smith has been in New Hampshire during the Easter break busily trying to ward off the primary challenge of Rep. John E. Sununu, namesake son of the state's former governor and controversial White House chief of staff of President George Bush the senior.

Mr. Smith's double flip-flop is one of those issues so well known here that Mr. Sununu doesn't need to mention it, and he doesn't. Indeed, he doesn't even mention the fellow Republican whose job he wants, preferring at a large Rockingham County Lincoln Day dinner here the other night to aim his arrows at the expected Democratic senatorial candidate, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

Mr. Smith, at the same dinner, returned the compliment, ignoring Mr. Sununu and choosing instead to wrap himself as the incumbent senator around the war leadership of President Bush, with gentle reminders of his own service in Vietnam and his recent visit to Afghanistan to laud the American troops.

In the course of reiterating Mr. Bush's warning that the war on terrorism will be a long one, Mr. Smith assured the crowd that "we're going to stand up against these people no matter how long it takes, no matter what happens." Not surprisingly, the audience drowned him in applause.

But Mr. Smith at the same time could not resist taking a dig at his own party's State Department.

"Right now, as we sit here," he said, "Yasser Arafat is killing people in the Middle East. Somebody in the State Department said he wasn't a terrorist. That fooled me."

He also criticized the Immigration and Naturalization Service for the notorious clearance of visas for two of the Sept. 11 attackers, an embarrassing matter that other Republicans at such a dinner might have left unsaid.

Bob Smith, however, is not one to let things go unsaid. In most instances, he remains an ultraconservative true believer, and since returning to the party banner he has been unwavering on most right-wing issues. A conspicuous exception is environmentalism, where he has become outspoken, even opposing his own president on Mr. Bush's pet objective -- drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

Speaking to the state's Business and Industrial Association the morning after the Lincoln Day dinner, Mr. Smith ridiculed the notion of "going to Alaska to get six years of oil" from the protected refuge amid "talk in the Arab world of shutting off all oil to the West." It was hardly the sort of remark likely to endear himself to the president.

Mr. Smith said he had not heard from the White House regarding his position on ANWR, and he dismissed the notion that it will be a serious issue in his primary fight with Mr. Sununu, who supports the president on drilling. Mr. Smith noted that Karl Rove, Mr. Bush's chief political strategist, came to New Hampshire for him last year, quoting him as saying the president believes in supporting incumbent Republicans. "I take him at his word," Mr. Smith said.

But Republican Party insiders here say the White House recognizes Mr. Smith's vulnerability and presumably is more than willing to see him knocked off by Mr. Sununu, a more formidable opponent for Ms. Shaheen, to keep the Senate seat in GOP hands. Recent polls, one of the insiders says, have Mr. Smith running well behind.

Although one old party observer says, "If it was a fight, they'd stop it," he and others empathize with the depth and intensity of Mr. Smith's supporters in the party's right wing. In a low voter turnout, they say, that fervor among the Smith forces could save him.

His strengthened reputation for environmental concerns also is seen as a help to him in the primary, though not so likely in a general election against Ms. Shaheen, whose own record is solid with the greens.

With five months to go before the Republican primary, Mr. Smith is not waiting around for a Bush endorsement not likely to come -- not as long as he is seen as a weak link in the party's plan to retake the Senate.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau.

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