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In N.H., a House Divided Over GOP Senate Contest

Primary: Stakes are high because the outcome could decide which party controls the chamber.

June 10, 2002|JANET HOOK | weekender/Williams

MANCHESTER, N.H. — A Republican family feud is ablaze in New Hampshire, and its sparks are flying far beyond the tiny state.

From Mississippi to Manhattan, well-known GOP politicians are choosing sides in one of the year's most bitter Senate primaries. Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani has weighed in. So has former President Bush. His son, the current president, is sending mixed signals: His chief political advisor is on one side, his chief of staff on the other. Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) has a foot in both camps.

The focus of all the fuss: Sen. Bob Smith, who is seeking a third term, and Rep. John E. Sununu, a three-term House member trying to grab the GOP's Senate nomination from Smith. Helping fuel Sununu's challenge is anger at Smith among Republicans caused by his decision to quit the party in 1999 to run for president as an independent. Smith's bid quickly sputtered and he rejoined the GOP.

The primary race is drawing national attention because New Hampshire voters--who are accustomed to being kingmakers every four years with their first-in-the-nation presidential primary--could well decide in November which party controls the Senate.

Democrats, who hold the chamber by a single seat, see New Hampshire as their best shot at ousting an incumbent Republican and padding their margin. Conversely, holding on to the New Hampshire seat could prove essential to GOP hopes of winning back control of the Senate.

"I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that the decision of a few hundred thousand New Hampshire voters could determine the national agenda for the next two years," Democratic National Committee head Terry McAuliffe said.

The Democrats have a strong candidate in New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, who faces no opposition for her party's nomination. The GOP spat, meanwhile, won't be settled until a Sept. 10 primary--less than two months before the general election.

The choice between Smith and Sununu does not hinge on ideology: Both are conservatives with similar voting records on most issues. Instead, many Republicans here are focusing on who is best equipped to win in November.

"The real question is who is going to be more effective in the race against Shaheen and in bringing the party together after the primary," said lawyer Scott Earnshaw, an undecided voter who took time on a recent Saturday to attend a barbecue to meet Sununu.

Polls consistently have shown that Sununu would be the stronger candidate against Shaheen, and that he is the favorite to win the primary. Smith supporters dismiss poll numbers this far from the primary and point to other measures of candidate strength.

Smith has vastly outdistanced Sununu in campaign fund-raising. And he has a core of committed supporters--especially among conservatives drawn to his ardent defense of the rights of gun owners and his opposition to abortion.

"What does it take to win in New Hampshire? Grass roots and financial resources," said Corey Lewandowski, Smith's campaign director. "Bob Smith is the only candidate who has both."

Winning back Republican control of the Senate is key for President Bush, who has seen major elements of his agenda sail through the GOP-run House only to bog down in the Senate. That's why he has been aggressive this year in recruiting and campaigning for GOP candidates for Senate seats.

In some states, he has not hesitated to embrace a well-known candidate facing long-shot opponents in a GOP primary--for example, his backing of Elizabeth Hanford Dole, who is seeking an open Senate seat in North Carolina.

But in New Hampshire, the political calculations are far more complicated.

Tradition would dictate that the White House and national party officials support an incumbent seeking reelection. But the White House and the GOP establishment have been sending mixed signals about Smith. One complication involves family ties: Sununu's father was chief of staff to Bush's father--although he was controversial and eventually was fired.

Bush's father threw his weight behind the younger Sununu last summer, when he came here for a fund-raiser. And last month, Andrew H. Card Jr., the current White House chief of staff, told local reporters he favors Sununu.

"I've had a long and close relationship with the Sununu family," said Card, who had been deputy to Sununu's father in the first Bush administration.

But weighing in for Smith has been Karl Rove, Bush's chief political aide who traveled to New Hampshire last year to raise money for the senator and proclaim the White House's commitment to incumbents. More recently, Christie Whitman, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, spent a day touring the state with Smith, who is the ranking Republican on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee.

"For our agenda, he has been very important," Whitman said after joining Smith to open a stretch of hiking trail.

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