Jabs turn to punches at N.H. debate

October 21, 2002|By Jules Witcover

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Running against a woman candidate often persuades a male opponent to pull his punches, if only out of fear of a voter backlash. But that didn't stop Republican senatorial nominee Rep. John Sununu from coming out swinging in his debate here the other night with his Democratic foe, three-term Gov. Jeanne Shaheen.

In his opening statement, Mr. Sununu, son of the former White House chief of staff of the same name, lashed out at Ms. Shaheen for "running ads scaring senior citizens about Social Security," calling it "the lowest form of politics there is."

He was referring to Ms. Shaheen's version of this season's favorite Democratic attack on GOP opponents: the "privatization" of the federal retirement benefits system -- permitting a small portion of Social Security payroll taxes to be invested in the stock market.

Republican candidates all over the country have been running away from this pet scheme of President Bush. Democrats such as Ms. Shaheen have been saying to seniors, as she did in this debate: "Imagine if you had to depend on the stock market for your Social Security for the last 18 months."

But Mr. Sununu is not running away. Instead, he defended the idea, denying Ms. Shaheen's argument that the scheme would take $1 trillion out of the retirement system over 20 years, deepening the federal deficit and forcing higher taxes or cuts in benefits.

Such "personal accounts," he said, will not affect seniors' benefits and will let their children and grandchildren earn a "stronger rate of return over the long run."

The exchange, which segued into a Sununu attack on Ms. Sheehan's record as governor in dealing with education funding, so disturbed one of the debate panelists that she chastised him for it. In defense, he said his campaign was focused on his own legislative record, noting that in his Sept. 10 GOP primary against 12-year incumbent Sen. Robert C. Smith he was criticized by the press for not attacking him.

Ms. Shaheen broke in: "I don't think any newspaper is going to criticize you in this campaign for not attacking your opponent."

The sparring between Mr. Sununu and Ms. Shaheen didn't begin with this debate. Three days after the primary, the Republican state committee ran a TV ad calling Ms. Shaheen a "failed" governor who didn't deserve a "promotion" to the U.S. Senate -- a notion of the two offices' relative importance most governors probably would not accept.

Mr. Sununu insisted, however, that it wasn't he who first went down the negative road -- it was the party committee, he had had nothing to do with it and wasn't even aware in advance the ad would be run. Collaborating in such an ad, he indignantly observed, would have been illegal under federal campaign finance laws. State Republican Chairman John Dowd later backed up Mr. Sununu on his being in the dark about it.

Further, Mr. Sununu said, he didn't spend his time "raising money with Barbra Streisand and Al Gore," two favorite Republican targets who have been busy this fall filling Democratic campaign coffers.

Ms. Shaheen allowed herself a raised eyebrow of disbelief at Mr. Sununu's profession of innocence about the offending ad. "It's just not credible," she said, complaining that attacks being aired "are turning off voters."

The spat over which side "went negative" first was a blemish on an otherwise informative hourlong debate.

Ms. Shaheen said in the face of Republican assaults on her tenure as governor, including a controversial property tax change on her watch, that the state still has the lowest taxes in the country. Mr. Sununu said his six years in Congress better prepared him to meet the Granite State's needs.

Both candidates smiled benignly through the debate, but it was clear that what little love there may have been between them before this race has been lost in the wake of the negative turn, regardless of which side started it. With their contest rated a toss-up, the prospect for sweetness and light in the final weeks seems minimal.

Jules Witcover generally writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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