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Granite State Nail-Biter

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By David S. Broder
Sunday, August 24, 2008

MANCHESTER, N.H. -- When Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, the chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, lists the November races that will swell his party's majority, New Hampshire is one of the first he brags about.

Here on the ground, it looks a lot less certain that Democrat Jeanne Shaheen will cut short the promising career of Sen. John Sununu, namesake son of a White House chief of staff under the first President Bush.

Shaheen, a former governor who lost a close race to Sununu six years ago in an environment much more hospitable to Republicans, was a double-digit favorite early this year when she heeded supporters' pleas and left a Harvard administrative job to test Sununu again. But last weekend, as she and Sununu marched with their supporters in the Londonderry parade and then hobnobbed with voters at the Greekfest here, Shaheen acknowledged that things have changed.

Reflecting on a University of New Hampshire poll released July 23 that gave her a 46 percent to 42 percent lead -- the tightest in any public poll in a year -- Shaheen said, "We always knew it would be close. It's always difficult to beat an incumbent."

Sununu, who moved from the House to the Senate, gloated in a separate interview that he has hoarded his TV ad money, while "Shaheen spent $700,000 this summer and didn't move her numbers at all."

In a race where both candidates expect total spending to reach $20 million -- an extraordinary sum for such a small state -- Shaheen implored her backers last week to help her overcome "my opponent's $3 million cash-on-hand advantage." Conservative independent expenditure groups are also mobilized, she warned.

Sununu, Norm Coleman in Minnesota and Gordon Smith in Oregon are three relatively young senators the GOP hopes can survive this difficult year and provide a base for the future. All three stress their independent credentials, while their opponents try to categorize them as Bush clones. Democrats have been resurgent in all three states, but Sununu faces the toughest challenge.

In 2006, Democrats won everything in New Hampshire -- reelecting the governor, capturing both House seats and turning over both houses of the Legislature. Opposition to the Iraq war and economic worries left longtime Republican incumbents stranded.

In the past year, the state has not been as badly shocked by the housing crisis as some others, but voter interviews in heavily Republican Londonderry found a strong undercurrent of anxiety about energy and food prices and the cost of heating oil for next winter.

Sununu is trying to exploit that by advocating an aggressive offshore drilling program, while Shaheen, like other Democrats, would limit the sites for new wells and emphasize conservation and alternative energy sources. More broadly, they differ on taxes and on Iraq -- with Shaheen challenging Sununu's assessment that the war issue has faded since 2006.

Sununu, an engineer by training, comes across as the more forceful advocate, but Shaheen has the warmer personality. Her procession through the savory food stalls at the Greekfest was marked by hugs, smiles and family photos.

Shaheen supporters argue that this race should be easier for her than her 2002 run, when she was still governor and had to fit her campaigning into an official schedule. But voter interviews found that the controversies of Shaheen's Concord years are more familiar to many voters than the details of Sununu's Senate term.

At the margins, Sununu probably has the presidential candidate who helps him most in John McCain. The two have traveled the globe together, and McCain praises Sununu as "the smartest guy in the United States Senate."

On the Democratic side, the tension remaining from the Clinton-Obama contest here last winter remains a problem for Shaheen. She is identified as a Clinton partisan, in part because her husband, Bill Shaheen, was the New York senator's volunteer co-chairman until he was asked to resign after making disparaging comments about Barack Obama.

A Shaheen insider said, "The Clinton people are all with us, but we need more from the Obama side to win this." When Shaheen fired her campaign manager, Bill Hyers, last month, he was picked up by the Obama headquarters in Chicago. The new manager, Robby Mook, is a Clinton veteran, and some Democrats see the changes at the top as another sign that this victory is not yet in hand.

davidbroder@washpost.com


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