CONCORD, N.H. — The GOP presidential candidates in New Hampshire have appealed to voters mostly by promoting their conservative credentials, but former House Speaker Newt Gingrich earned the biggest headlines Friday by going local.
Mr. Gingrich garnered front-page attention in both the Concord and Manchester newspapers by pledging that, if elected president, he would not support a Canadian-U.S. hydroelectric project unless the power transmission lines go underground.
“The application that I would be willing to consider as president would have to require burials, and it would have to require that the Northern Pass project be an underground project,” Mr. Gingrich said at a town hall meeting at a senior center in Plymouth, N.H. He made a similar pledge at a campaign event in Littleton, in the state’s “north country” whose landscape would be most affected by the project.
Mr. Gingrich weighed in on the project because, he explained, the president has the responsibility for signing the necessary permits for the cross-border project. Mr. Gingrich promised to insist on a plan that provides for “no visual damage to the natural beauty of northern New Hampshire.”
“There will be no transmission towers if I’m president,” he said to sustained and enthusiastic applause.
The former speaker even offered to build a “sophisticated” veterans’ health center in the north country, so that New Hampshire veterans would not have to drive to Boston for advanced medical care.
His solicitousness on local issues was a hit with audiences. Even a Ron Paul supporter, Avid Kamgar of Easton, N.H., admitted after one event that she found Mr. Gingrich “very charming.”
The Northern Pass project is controversial. A joint proposal between Public Service of New Hampshire (PSNH), Hydro-Quebec and Northeast Utilities, it would bring 1,200 megawatts of hydroelectricity across the Canadian border to converter stations in New Hampshire and supply the regional power grid for much of New England. It would include 140 miles of high-voltage lines from towers as high as 130 feet, and would cost about $1.2 billion.
Utility officials in New Hampshire have argued that burying the transmission lines could increase the project’s cost by a factor of 10.
A spokesman for PSNH said the utility “appreciated” Mr. Gingrich’s position of burying the power lines but said the former speaker was setting a “poor precedent.”
“While our studies show that may not be sensible using traditional underground technology, we are continuing our research,” said spokesman Martin Murray in a statement. “PSNH has been working for months to minimize the visual impact of overhead construction. … The next president will face a number of decisions regarding energy development, from electric transmission and natural gas transmission to oil pipelines, and it certainly sets a poor precedent for candidates to make decisions on these projects before they are finalized.”
New Hampshire holds the first-in-the-nation primary on Tuesday. A Suffolk University/7 News tracking poll released Friday showed former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney still with a big lead, at 40 percent, with Texas Rep. Ron Paul second at 18 percent, and former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum gaining in third at 11 percent. Mr. Gingrich is in fourth at 9 percent, followed by former Utah Gov. Jon Hunstman Jr. at 8 percent.
“I would love to have your help on Tuesday,” Mr. Gingrich told the audience in Littleton Thursday. “I think we might well pull off a surprising upset.”