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In N.H, GOP Is Torn Between 2 Senate Hopefuls

Politics: Primary may turn on how voters think incumbent Bob Smith or Rep. John E. Sununu will fare against Gov. Jeanne Shaheen in November.


CONCORD, N.H. — In a primary election that could help determine which party controls the U.S. Senate, Republicans here must choose Tuesday between two candidates so philosophically alike that their hard-fought race has come down to quibbling over which man is more of a Washington insider.

As Sen. Bob Smith battles Rep. John E. Sununu, meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has poured $1 million into TV and radio ads attacking Jeanne Shaheen, New Hampshire's popular three-term governor and the sole Democrat in the Senate race.

"This is not a fight for the ideological soul of the party," said Tom Rath, a Republican National Committee member here. Rather, "it's a race which I think has made many people up here uncomfortable. These are two people we respect a great deal, both people who have served our state with great distinction. It is forcing people to choose sides, and nobody likes doing that."

With Democrats clinging to control of the Senate by a single vote, Republicans here have focused on who stands the better chance of getting elected in November. Two-term incumbent Smith, 61, has painted himself as a man-of-the-woods conservative in step with a state whose motto is "Live Free or Die." Sununu, who in three terms in Congress has proved to be every bit as conservative, insists Smith is obsolete, and that he can best hold on to New Hampshire's GOP Senate seat. "I will beat Jeanne Shaheen in November," declared Sununu, who turns 38 Tuesday.

Polls suggest he might be right. Placing Smith and Sununu almost in a dead heat, the Concord Monitor's most recent survey showed Smith losing to Shaheen in November and Sununu winning--by a single percentage point. A poll several days later from the University of New Hampshire gave Sununu a startling 22-point edge over Smith but did not look at a possible November outcome.

Figures from a University of New Hampshire poll in June, however, showed Smith and Shaheen virtually tied and Sununu easily defeating Shaheen--results that have continued to hold, the poll's director said.

"Preelection polls last year were showing that Bob Smith would have a difficult time defeating Jeanne Shaheen," said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center (and no relation to the senator). "So there was an effort to draft Sununu."

Some Republicans still are steamed over the scathing speech Bob Smith made when he bolted the party briefly in 1999, Andy Smith said. Though the senator quickly returned to the GOP fold, "quitting the party has hurt him a lot," he added.

Yet in endorsing Smith, the Concord Monitor hailed his temporary defection as a badge of independence. "Sununu, by contrast, has served as another foot soldier for the GOP," the capital city's paper wrote, "in lock step with the administration."

For his part, Sununu has enjoyed name recognition inherited in part from his father, John H. Sununu, who served as governor and as chief of staff to the first President Bush. As an engineer with degrees from MIT and the Harvard Business School, Sununu also appeals to many new residents of New England's fastest-growing state: well-educated professionals drawn to New Hampshire by high-technology jobs and no state sales tax.

Though Republicans claim a plurality of New Hampshire voters with 36%--against 34% for Independents and 30% for Democrats--"this is not a conservative Republican state by any means," Andy Smith said. "It is a moderate to liberal electorate, and Bob Smith is a little out of step with that electorate."

To change that perception, Bob Smith has outspent his GOP rival, 4 to 1. A passionate campaigner, Smith has worked to counter "the common misunderstanding that the two candidates are identical on all the issues," said his campaign manager, Cory Lewandowski.

"If this were the case--which it is not--why would you take the candidate with 12 years of seniority in the U.S. Senate, ranked No. 41 right now, and replace him with someone who, if elected, would be No. 100?" Lewandowski asked. Moreover, he continued, "It is very unusual that a junior congressman would challenge a senior senator--almost unheard of. While he has a right to do that, absolutely, the question is: Is it right?"

But for party officials, protocol is less important than the simple goal of blocking Shaheen.

"No matter who wins on Sept. 10, we are absolutely going to keep this seat Republican on Nov. 5," said Julie Teer, communication manager for the Republican state committee in New Hampshire.

For months, the national GOP has run ads blasting Shaheen's six-year record as governor. Education, the signature issue for the former teacher, has been a special target of ads blaming Shaheen for failing to solve the state's school funding crisis. "She vetoed our children's future," one GOP-sponsored television ad intoned.

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