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Mary McGrory

New Hampshire's Hot Race

By Mary McGrory
Sunday, September 8, 2002; Page B07

ANTRIM, N.H. -- Antrim's annual Labor Day chicken barbecue, which seemed to promise a glimpse of grass-roots politics in the Granite State, did not live up to expectations. In the first place, there was no chicken barbecue: The Odd Fellows, who usually tend the fires, had other fish to fry, and Jonas Taub, the evenings-in-Antrim coordinator, readily admits he dropped the ball in filling the gap. He put up a "cancelled" sign near the Baptist church, but not everyone saw it.

Families spread their blankets on the green around the bandstand and listened to the Elevators, a prominent local rock band, and resigned themselves to going home to get supper after all as the dank twilight settled around them.

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Only one politician was on the scene. Ted Leach of the neighboring town of Hancock, a state representative who has been redistricted into Antrim, was seeking to make new friends. Antrim is used to inattention. It is small (pop. 2,483), and, predictably, registered Republicans outnumber Democrats by almost 2 to 1. Leach is an environmentalist who used to publish an area weekly. He's pleasant and articulate, and the only thing he minds is being asked about New Hampshire's hot race, the bitter struggle between Sen. Bob Smith and his challenger, Rep. John E. Sununu, son of John H. Sununu, the ex-governor and ex-chief of staff to George Bush I. Rep. Sununu is seen as less officious and forceful than his father.

He is lean and trim and occasionally articulate about the Constitution. Smith is none of the above. He is 6-foot-6 with girth to match. He is regarded by his fervent followers as a great oak in the conservative forest and by his critics as a great oaf given to sudden outbursts and moves such as quitting the Republican Party in 1999 and running for president. Like a boy who has run away from home, he was taken in when he came back and was briefly chairman of the Senate committee on the environment.

Antrim's main street is planted thickly with Smith signs, but they may not represent voter sentiment. Isabel Nichols, who plays the organ in the Presbyterian church and the impresario for all dramatic productions, is for Sununu. "He makes a much better appearance," she said, adding, "How can Smith be taken seriously after what he did?"

But Steve Crowell, who runs a steel company, is sticking with Smith because of his seniority in the Senate. "If Sununu had seniority, I'd go with him." Wife Leslie, innkeeper at the Maplehurst, goes with Steve.

The town's biggest GOP giver, Herb Nilsen, a self-styled "ultra-conservative," can't decide. He usually goes along with the Manchester Union Leader, which endorsed Sununu last week, but Sununu "hasn't shown me the strength I was looking for."

In debates, Smith detailed the pork he had brought from Washington. Sununu contented himself with lofty reassurances about the thoughtfulness and substance he would bring. In post-session encounters with the press, Sununu was serene, Smith was grumpy. They were retroactively right. A University of New Hampshire poll put Sununu 22 points ahead, contrasting sharply with a Concord Monitor poll that had the two virtually tied.

State Rep. Leach, like most elected officials here, ducks discussion of the Senate scrap. Pressed, he will say only that Smith "has developed a nice little green streak" -- meaning that Smith's environmental record is by far the better of the two.

The environment has not surfaced as an issue. Granite Staters hate to seem soft on anything, but they are quietly protective of their lovely landscape. Recently their solicitude showed. When a proposed access road to the airport was invaded by a pair of eagles, the Transportation Department, without a murmur, set about rerouting the road at a cost of $10 million. The eagles took pity and flew away, but they had made their point.

Sununu attracted the hostile attention of the enviros when he came out with his ever-so-clever "compromise" on Alaska -- limited drilling in the wildlife refuge, which infuriated the green community. The League of Conservation Voters calls his record "abysmal" and has flooded the state with 100,000 pieces of literature that detail Sununu's industry-friendly votes on arsenic in drinking water and coal-fired energy plants.

Sununu dismisses the broadsides as the work of thinly veiled activists working for the incumbent, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, who think the governor could more easily finish off Smith in November. Andrew Smith, who ran the UNH poll, says the race is being won by new young settlers in New Hampshire who prefer the technocratic to the idiosyncratic in senators.

Concord's political sage, Tom Rath, says the contest makes New Hampshire uneasy. "It is not a joyous exercise in democracy," he says. Just like Antrim's Labor Day barbecue.

© 2002 The Washington Post Company