Granite State a Battleground at All Levels

Posted September 15, 2008 at 6:35pm

Nine months after the first in the nation primary, it appears the political world still revolves around New Hampshire.

Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama attended a rally in Manchester on Saturday. The next day, GOP presidential nominee John McCain attended a NASCAR race in Loudon — just 25 miles north of the Granite State’s largest city.

And down the ballot, every Congressional race is in play in New Hampshire: Sen. John Sununu (R) has a rematch with former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D), while both freshmen Democratic House Members — Carol Shea-Porter and Paul Hodes — are targeted for defeat.

The presidential race in New Hampshire is considered a pure tossup right now, and the already-close Congressional races may be tightening. But will that last? And how will the contests break at the end?

“While these races appear close today, I think they’re only close because the vast majority of independent voters are still making up their minds,” said Jim Demers, a longtime Democratic activist.

Demers said the politics-heavy year in the state means many independent voters have “overdosed” on politics and won’t decide who to vote for until late in the game.

“I will say that I think the battle right now in New Hampshire is basically where the independent voters are going to go,” Demers said. “Historically, the independent voters break really late here.”

But out of the four major electoral battles in the state, some New Hampshire political observers believe the 1st district race will be the most competitive come Election Day. Shea-Porter faces a rematch with former Rep. Jeb Bradley (R), whom she upset in 2006.

New Hampshire radio host Jack Heath, who is also a Republican consultant, said he expects the 1st district race to be within a 5-point margin on Nov. 4.

“I think in ’06, Carol Shea-Porter ran a purely grass-roots campaign and was the benefactor of a Democratic sweep up here,” Heath said. “I don’t think she’s entrenched herself in popularity across the district, but I think she’s going to be more aggressive than people give her credit for.”

This year, Heath said he saw Bradley run the “most negative, aggressive race that he’s ever run” in the Sept. 9 Republican primary in which he defeated former state Health and Human Services Commissioner John Stephen. Heath added that one of the deciding factors in the 1st district race will be whether Bradley can salve the rift in the party between him and Stephen’s supporters from the divisive GOP primary.

And in the 2nd district, which most political observers believe to be less competitive than the 1st district this year, radio host Jennifer Horn won a four-way primary last week to earn the opportunity to face Hodes in November. Because Horn is a mother of five children, like GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin, some observers see McCain’s selection of the Alaska governor as a boost to Horn’s candidacy.

Still, even Republicans are hedging their bets on Horn.

“I’d say Paul Hodes is a little bit stronger in that 2nd district than [Shea-Porter is] in the 1st,” Heath said.

The Senate race has a dynamic all its own, because, unlike the Congressional district candidates, Manchester Democratic Chairman Chris Pappas said Sununu and Shaheen are well-known to Granite State voters. The result, Pappas said, is that this is the race that will be affected the least by the presidential race.

“I think both candidates in the Senate race are known quantities,” Pappas said. “I think it probably impacts it less because our candidates are so well-known.”

Shaheen once led Sununu by double digits in several polls, but that margin has shrunk significantly this month, and polls now generally put both candidates within a few points of each other. One of the reasons for this could be that Sununu put his first television advertisement on the airwaves at the end of August, while Shaheen hit the airwaves in May.

State Sen. Bob Clegg (R), whom Horn defeated in the 2nd district primary last week, said Sununu’s first ad, “Quicker,” wisely targets young voters. The ad proclaims Sununu, the youngest Senator, is “younger, faster, quicker, inexhaustible, tireless” and “energetic.”

“It’s intentionally because what they’ve done is watch Obama energize the young people,” Clegg said. “He’s played it very well, and so John Sununu has taken a play out of the Obama book and said ‘I, too, am young, vigorous and energetic.’”

Clegg also said the elimination of straight-ticket voting in New Hampshire this cycle could help his party win back either Congressional seat.

In the past, New Hampshire voters could check a single box to vote for candidates from a single party for every office on the ballot. Republicans attribute much of the massive Democratic gains in 2006, especially in the state legislature, to this feature on the ballot.

“This time, they actually have to go in and work the ballot, and now name recognition is going to mean a whole lot more,” Clegg said.

Clegg said candidates will have to have better name recognition than they did in the past, which could be a problem for freshman lawmakers like Hodes and Shea-Porter.

“I think you’ll find that there will be a greater amount of blanks on some of the races, including the federal races,” Clegg said.

Democrats in the Legislature spearheaded the effort to get rid of the straight-ticket voting on the ballot, Demers said. Nonetheless, he said, he thinks voter anger with the Bush administration will be the prevailing sentiment when voters cast their ballots.

“I think the Democrats would fare better if the straight ticket still existed, but I also think the uneasiness that the voters have will result in a lot of people still casting a straight ticket,” Demers said.