- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 18, 2009

New Hampshire Republicans have lost most of the state’s top offices in recent years, but the losing streak could be nearing an end in a critical 2010 Senate contest that early polls show is up for grabs.

Democrats hold the governorship, both House seats and one Senate seat, and Republican Sen. Judd Gregg’s decision to retire next year gives them one more opportunity to tighten their political grip on the Granite State. But former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, an untested law-and-order Republican who has never run for elective office, has emerged as the party’s front-runner to take on Democratic Rep. Paul W. Hodes, who has a 100 percent liberal voting score from Americans for Democratic Action.

“I think she will be a great candidate, though she is a new candidate, having never run before. But her instincts are very good, and the contrast between her and Hodes, particularly when it comes to spending, he’s going to have some problems in New Hampshire,” said Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who recruited her for the race.

A University of New Hampshire poll last month showed Mrs. Ayotte leading Mr. Hodes by 39 percent to 35 percent and a Research 2000 poll for the liberal Daily Kos Web site put the two in a statistical tie. Election analyst Stuart Rothenberg calls the race a “tossup,” but adds that “GOP prospects have improved of late.”

Democratic Party officials remain cautiously confident about their chances, noting President Obama’s continued popularity in the state and a Gallup Poll that found Democrats still have strong support there.

“I think this is a significant pickup opportunity for the Democrats. It is one of our top priorities,” said Eric Schultz, chief spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Hodes is a very strong candidate, but it is going to be a competitive race, no doubt about it.”

Mrs. Ayotte, who was appointed to the attorney general post she held before resigning last month, announced her candidacy earlier this month after Mr. Cornyn and other national Republican leaders urged her to run and promised to help raise money for her campaign. The early support came even though several more Republican candidates may enter the race in what could be a divisive party primary. The NRSC already has scheduled a fundraiser for Mrs. Ayotte on Sept. 22.

Potential rivals for the Republican nod include businessman Sean Mahoney; Ovide Lamontagne, the party’s 1996 gubernatorial nominee; and former Rep. Charles Bass.

The news that Washington power brokers were attempting to anoint the state’s Republican candidate — and that the NRSC had sent in staff to help her set up a campaign — did not go down well with New Hampshire Republicans, even as Mrs. Ayotte prepared to launch her campaign in a series of appearances around the state.

Mr. Cornyn attempted to smooth things over during a briefing for reporters, saying, “We do not endorse anyone who does not ask for an endorsement, and Kelly Ayotte has not asked for an endorsement.”

Still, the NRSC’s early encouragement and the follow-up assistance drew complaints from the state’s fiercely independent Republicans.

“I hope the NRSC understands that New Hampshire doesn’t really respond well to having candidates designated from outside the state,” said Republican Party state Chairman John H. Sununu.

The influential Manchester Union Leader, in an editorial broadside, told Mrs. Ayotte’s supporters at the NRSC to “butt out” of New Hampshire politics.

With Republicans suffering losses across New England in recent years, the decision by Sen. Gregg not to seek a fourth term immediately focused Democratic attention on the seat. The way was cleared for Mr. Hodes to make the run after Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, the state’s other Democratic representative, decided not to enter the race.

Democratic Party officials contend that Mrs. Ayotte’s conservative positions and record will not play well in the state.

Despite heavyweight Republican support from Washington, Democratic Party state Chairman Ray Buckley thinks “that as the people of the state get to know both Ayotte and Hodes, they will see that there is a difference between the two.”

“Some see her as a moderate, but she is coming across as a member of the far right and very much out of the mainstream in New Hampshire,” Mr. Buckley said in a telephone interview.

Mr. Cornyn’s denials notwithstanding, political veterans in the state say the NRSC has all but endorsed Mrs. Ayotte.

“The NRSC has adopted her. They’ve sent up a staff to help her. People here want to make their own assessment,” said New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Dave Carney.

“She has surrounded herself with Washington lobbyists and Washington insiders, and I don’t think that sends the right message to voters there,” Mr. Schultz, the Democratic spokesman, said.

Still, Republican operatives in the state say they think Mr. Hodes is beatable with the right candidate.

“He’s the least dynamic of the candidates, not terribly articulate, rambles on, not telegenic and not a reformer. He’s a party-line pol who doesn’t bring any juice to the table,” Mr. Carney said.

“A lot of candidates are mulling the race, and that’s a good sign. Our voter surveys are getting better. New Hampshire is losing manufacturing jobs, its economy is not doing well, and the state’s budget is a disaster,” he said.

In her political debut last week in Wolfeboro, Mrs. Ayotte said she opposed the federal bailouts of the banking and auto industries as well as Mr. Obama’s $787 billion economic stimulus spending plan.

“They are spending money we don’t have, they are placing a debt on our children that we cannot afford,” she said. She also staked out conservative positions on social issues such as abortion and gay marriage.

Reminding voters of her tough law-and-order reputation as attorney general, she touted her support for gun rights and the case she personally prosecuted against the killer of Manchester police officer Michael Briggs, seeking the death penalty in that case.

“I made the decision that I would personally try that case and ask for the strongest penalties available under our law, and that’s the leadership you will see from me,” she told cheering supporters.

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