MANCHESTER, N.H., SEPT. 4 -- New Hampshire's restive voters, who rang the opening bell in this year's topsy-turvy campaign by wounding incumbent George Bush, rewarding outsiders and demanding straight talk on the economy, have a chance to repeat themselves Tuesday when they go to the polls to choose congressional and gubernatorial nominees.
In the process, they may even help revive a two-party system and create unprecedented opportunities for female politicians in a state that has been a near Republican monopoly for a decade and which has virtually excluded women from the tops of major party tickets throughout its history.
This wide-open political year began when popular Republican Sen. Warren B. Rudman announced his retirement after two terms and when Republican Gov. Judd Gregg decided to leave the State House to seek Rudman's seat. It was made more so by the state's precipitous economic slide after years of head-spinning prosperity, a condition that has produced large fields for statewide seats and an unusually candid discussion of the state's fiscal and tax policies.
Perhaps the best illustration that this is, as Republican Party treasurer and former attorney general Tom Rath says, "a watershed year," is the open, bipartisan defiance of what has become the state's most shopworn political shibboleth. For years, gubernatorial candidates have felt compelled to take what is known here as "the pledge," a promise to veto any sales or income tax in a state that has neither broad-based levy.
This year, three of the six leading contenders in the gubernatorial primaries, one Republican and two Democrats, are openly advocating various proposals to overhaul an antiquated tax system that relies on crushing local property tax rates, a business property tax that many companies are able to dodge, and an astonishing array of business license fees. Spurring them on is an anticipated $300 million deficit in the next two-year budget cycle.
"It's clear we are seeing the beginnings of real change in this state," said Rath.
Whether anyone advocating broad-based taxes in New Hampshire can be elected governor in the general election is still doubted by some leading Democrats. The key, said University of New Hampshire pollster David Moore, is tying it to property tax relief. If voters are convinced of the offset, he said, a majority will support a state income tax.
Democrats here are feeling frisky about their chances for a resurgence, even though they have failed to elect one of their own as governor since 1981 and as senator since 1976. "I've been at this a long time," said state Democratic chairman Chris Spirou, "and I can smell the roses."
As is the case nationally, this sense of returning good times for Democrats is directly tied to bad economic times. The primary is set against a continuing backdrop of depressed real estate values, bank failures, high unemployment and tight credit. The jobless rate, around 2 percent in the high-flying mid-1980's, now stands at 7.2 percent. Three banks have closed this year on top of the 14 in 1991. And if current trends continue, the two-year toll of property foreclosures could reach 10,000.
Gregg could be the victim of the hard times. The son of a former governor who came back here to serve two terms as governor after eight years in the House, Gregg has an unbroken string of easy electoral victories on his resume.
The once prohibitive favorite to succeed Rudman in the Senate is facing a vigorous primary challenge by Bedford construction company owner Harold "Hal" Eckman. A pro-choice Republican who trades on his status as a political outsider and his refusal to accept contributions from political action committees, Eckman could conceivably stage an upset as he exploits criticism that Gregg has been a disinterested chief executive slow to respond to the state's economic troubles.
Gregg, after a summer in which he played the role of incumbent by largely ignoring candidate forums, has recently begun to attack Eckman in earnest. Gregg accused his opponent of trying to "buy" the election by pouring almost $600,000 of his money into the campaign, exceeding the state's voluntary campaign spending limits.
Even with a victory Tuesday, Gregg will face another hurdle in November, when his most likely opponent is another businessman/outsider, Democrat John Rauh of Sunapee.
Though he has familial connections to Washington through his late uncle Joseph L. Rauh Jr., a champion of civil rights, John Rauh spent his career as a business executive, and is now spending his fortune on running for the Senate. He failed to capture the Senate nomination two years ago, but this time is favored to win over his chief Democratic rivals, Franklin Mayor Brenda J. Elias and physician Terry Bennett.
But as usual in New Hampshire, it is the governor's race that is drawing the most attention, in part because the contest is defying the traditions of tax opposition and male dominance.
State Rep. Deborah L. "Arnie" Arnesen combines both trends. Representing the home town of former governor and fierce tax opponent Meldrim Thomson Jr., she calls herself the "oxymoron from Orford," and relentlessly advocates a state income tax to provide property tax relief and deal with the state budget deficit.
Though far less specific, one of her primary opponents, medical consultant and former state commissioner of health Ned Helms, also favors an income tax. Only former state Rep. Norman E. D'Amours among the major Democratic contenders for governor has adhered to the pledge.
The tax apostasy has even spread to GOP ranks, where state Rep. Elizabeth Hager pushes tax reform, but is likely to be eclipsed on Tuesday by Steven Merrill. A former attorney general and top aide to ex-Gov. John H. Sununu, Merrill is cut more from the mold, flatly opposing any broad based taxes.
But Merrill could be hurt by his advocacy of criminal penalties for doctors who perform abortions. Hager strongly favors abortion rights, and the third major GOP contender, Senate President Edward C. Dupont Jr., is a recent convert to that point of view.
With emotions roiling as strongly as they did in the presidential primary, political analysts here are reluctant to make too many firm predictions about Tuesday's primary voting, though most expect the two incumbent House members, Republican William H. Zeliff Jr. and Democrat Dick Swett, to win renomination to second terms.
"The same factors that drove the debate in February are here today, there's still cynicism and anger," Rath said. "That mood pervades every race for every office."
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.