New Hampshire showdown


Primary: Sen. Robert C. Smith, criticized over leaving the GOP three years ago and then rejoining, faces a tough challenge from Rep. John E. Sununu on Tuesday.

September 06, 2002|By Jules Witcover | Jules Witcover,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

SALEM, N.H. - After 18 years in Congress, 12 of them in the Senate, Sen. Robert C. Smith will find out Tuesday whether he still holds the hearts of the state's Republicans he walked out on three years ago for a brief and disastrous independent presidential fling.

Smith, who quickly relented and came home, is facing a strong primary challenge from Rep. John E. Sununu, a six-year House member and son of the former governor who served as chief of staff in the White House of the first President George Bush.

The contest is of more than passing interest to the party and to the White House. The loss of Smith's seat to the unopposed Democratic nominee, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, could scuttle the Republicans' chances of regaining control of the Senate, now in Democratic hands by a single seat.

Early polls suggested that Sununu would be a much more formidable opponent for Shaheen in November, giving him a boost. But later surveys have predicted a close primary outcome. A poll last week for the Concord Monitor gave Sununu 46 percent and Smith 45.

President Bush is staying neutral, but some aides - notably Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff - have endorsed Sununu.

Ever since Smith's quirky 1999 abandoning of the GOP, he has been busy reassuring the party faithful that he regrets his mistake and, at age 61, deserves a third Senate term. Sununu, 37, encouraged to make the challenge at least in part by Smith's erratic behavior, had until fairly recently only alluded to the senator's political dalliance, promising in ads to be a senator "New Hampshire can be proud of."

In a debate the other night, Sununu was asked what it was about Smith that the state couldn't be proud of. He dodged, insisting that he meant only to convey his own determination to be a senator who would be a credit to the state.

Smith, a bear of a man who is a tireless campaigner and self-declared patriot, seemed over the summer to shore up his standing with fellow Republicans, especially conservatives for whom he has been a poster boy, by challenging Sununu's voting record on conservative issues. A low turnout Tuesday could benefit Smith because such conservatives tend to be dependable voters.

A signal of concern in the Sununu camp was the airing last month of a television commercial putting the "quitter" issue back in play. It shows a woman sitting at her kitchen table and saying, "I've lived in New Hampshire for 27 years. I am a lifelong Republican. I voted for Bob Smith both times when he ran for the Senate. When Senator Smith decided to run for president, I was surprised. When he left our party and viciously criticized Republicans, I was shocked. Now, he's attacking John Sununu. This time, I am not surprised. I'm just disgusted. Senator Smith, you've gone too far, and you owe me and all Republicans an apology. I'm waiting, Senator."

Smith, having hoped that he had buried that episode, makes only passing references to it, as in a speech at a party picnic in Salem on Labor Day. He calls the Republicans a party "of competition, not retribution" and argues vigorously that his record of service over 18 years and his ability to help President Bush are what matter most.

The seniority he has built up in the Senate, Smith says, is a resource that Sununu could not match. If he is re-elected, Smith says, and Republicans regain control of the Senate, the state will be the only one with two Senate committee chairmanships - his on environmental issues and Sen. Judd Gregg on health concerns.

"That is a lot of power to throw away," he says. "If all other things are equal," he continues, referring to the Smith-Sununu match-up, "I would ask you to consider that."

He also reminds his listeners that he has $500,000 in his campaign treasury that he said he could not spend in the primary, "but I'm prepared to spend it against Jeanne Shaheen."

Smith's caveat, "if all things are equal," is one that Republican leaders here say is Sununu's weak point. Except on minor issues that Smith has sought to exploit, the two candidates are unusually close on the litmus-test issues such as abortion, school choice, national defense and foreign policy that might otherwise give voters a way to choose between the two.

Smith, pressing the point, said in an interview that there was no "philosophical difference" between him and Sununu, only his greater experience in Congress. On support for the president on the war on terrorism and on confronting Iraq, he said there is no real disagreement.

Sununu, for his part, pushes his case for electability.

"Every poll shows me beating Shaheen," the congressman says, "and Shaheen beating Smith. I'll beat Shaheen, and she knows it."

He points to Democratic ads being run against him as evidence of that view and thus casts himself as better positioned to help the Republicans regain the Senate.

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