Balancing act in tight N.H. Senate race

October 23, 2002|By Jules Witcover

CONCORD, N.H. -- Although President Bush officially kept hands off in last month's Republican senatorial primary, it's no secret that the White House was relieved when Rep. John E. Sununu defeated two-term incumbent Sen. Bob Smith.

Mr. Smith's brief defection from the Republican Party in 1999 made him a prospective loser for re-election againstDemocratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, term-limited out of office and seeking the Senate seat.

The president was quick to come to New Hampshire after the primary, raising more than $300,000 for the suddenly revitalized Republican cause. In a state that his father ignored as president and paid the political price, the younger Mr. Bush is wildly popular -- "like a rock star," says former Republican National Committeeman Tom Rath.

It's not surprising, therefore, that Ms. Shaheen has taken notable pains to cozy up to the Republican president who wants to see Mr. Sununu beat her on Nov. 5. She says now that had she been in the Senate last year when he proposed his $1.3 trillion tax cut excoriated by many Democrats, she would have voted for it.

More significantly, she has aligned herself with him in support of the resolution giving him congressional authority to use force against Iraq if diplomacy fails to bring a disarming of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.

Mr. Rath calls this positioning on issues a new version of the "triangulation" strategy made famous by former President Bill Clinton -- a kind of co-opting of the opposition that places a politician off from both his own party and its rival.

At the same time, Ms. Shaheen resists the label of old-fashioned liberal that Mr. Sununu repeatedly hangs on her. She insists she is a moderate, positioned between Democratic liberals and Republican conservatives, and declares herself a longtime New Democrat in the Clinton mode.

Mr. Sununu calls Ms. Shaheen's positioning "classic Clinton double-talk" and works hard at casting the Democratic governor as weak on national defense, even as she sides with Mr. Bush on Iraq. He zeroes in on her for joining the Democratic congressional leadership in opposition to Mr. Bush's plan for a new Department of Homeland Security, on grounds it will strip unionized employees of rights.

Ms. Shaheen may well have neutralized the Iraq issue as a factor in the Senate race. Kathleen Sullivan, the state Democratic Party chair, says there is a "disconnect" between Washington and New Hampshire in that domestic issues outdistance the war talk among voters' concerns in the final weeks of the campaign. John Dowd, her Republican counterpart here, doesn't disagree.

Because the outcome of the New Hampshire race could affect which party controls the Senate in January, Mr. Sununu makes the argument that his election is particularly critical to the White House. And with much current public focus on national security, Mr. Rath suggests "it's a good time to have an `R' [for Republican] after your name."

With 37 percent of registered voters here Republican to only 26 percent Democratic, Ms. Shaheen needs a healthy share of the remaining 37 percent who call themselves independent. They are a voting bloc that has been strongly supportive of her in her three winning gubernatorial elections.

Independents here, however, are no different from Republicans and Democrats regarding the third rail of New Hampshire politics -- any proposal for a state income tax. Although Ms. Shaheen has opposed it as governor, she could be hurt because Mark Fernald, the nominee for governor at the top of the Democratic ticket, is advocating it. At least in part for that reason, he is running well behind Republican gubernatorial nominee Craig Benson.

In the most recent poll by the University of New Hampshire, Ms. Shaheen had a narrow 47 percent to 44 percent lead over Mr. Sununu among all voters, but she led decisively among political independents, 49 percent to 34 percent. That strength, and her organization after six years as the state's chief executive, counters Mr. Sununu's association with Mr. Bush and makes this race a toss-up going down to the wire.

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

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