- Associated Press - Monday, June 20, 2016

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) - As the son of a former governor and brother of a past U.S. senator, Republican Chris Sununu’s name recognition gives him an early boost in the race to replace outgoing Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

It’s also making him the top target of his rivals in a crowded GOP primary field where each of the candidates is relatively unknown.

When Sununu said recently there’s been no local or state leadership on the opioid crisis, his rivals pounced, questioning not only Sununu’s record but his fitness for the state’s top job.

“It speaks to his immaturity and his lack of wisdom for saying something like that,” state Sen. Jeanie Forrester said the next day. “It really is quite surprising to me given the political dynasty that he comes from.”

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas also chimed in, demanding Sununu apologize to police and firefighters in his city who are on the front lines of the crisis.

Sununu’s rivals successfully kept him on the defensive for a week. Such harsh attacks and criticism are likely to persist through the summer as the gubernatorial candidates seek to stand out in an election dominated by the presidential and U.S. Senate contests.

State Rep. Frank Edelblut is the fourth candidate in the GOP field, and three Democrats are running.

The primary is Sept. 13.

Sununu is serving his third term on the Executive Council, a five-member body that approves gubernatorial appointments and large state contracts. He’s one of two Council members seeking to replace Hassan, who is running against Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte. Democratic councilor Colin Van Ostern is seeking his party’s gubernatorial nomination.

The council is a little known, if influential, political body. But Sununu started off the gubernatorial race with the highest name recognition of all seven candidates, according to March and April polling data from the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.

His father, John H. Sununu, served as governor in the 1980s and later as President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff. His older brother, John E. Sununu, served in the U.S. House of Representatives and in the U.S. Senate from 2002-2008.

Chris Sununu says his name recognition, somewhere around 60 percent in April, has more to do with his tireless campaigning than it does with his family ties. He was the first candidate to enter the race, making it official last September.

“I’ve spent a lot of my time traveling this state, getting to know people. It isn’t just built in name ID,” Sununu said in an interview Friday.

But in an election year where voters have responded well to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s take down of long-time politicians, coming from a political family carries risks.

“I don’t think it’s a really good year to be a political legacy,” said Andy Smith, director of the UNH Survey Center. “But certainly he won’t have to spend the money to get his name known.”

Forrester, Gatsas and Edelblut are crafting their own political messages. Forrester, a three-term senator, is pitching herself a conservative outsider with a policy-oriented campaign. She’s rolled out plans on the economy, government reform and the drug crisis and is calling on her rivals to do the same.

Gatsas, meanwhile, is talking up his executive experience as a four-term mayor of the state’s largest city, defending the city’s response to the opioid crisis and pledging to find simple ways for state government to spend more effectively. He’s locked up commitments from many GOP donors and his name recognition comes close to Sununu’s.

Edelblut, a businessman and first-term lawmaker, is focusing on job growth and drawing strong support from the libertarian-leaning wing of the Republican party.

Sununu says his role as chief executive of Waterville Valley ski resort will help him bring a business-minded focus to the governor’s job. He says he’s taking nothing for granted, even if he believes he has an edge.

“Am I the front runner? Probably,” he said. “That’s probably why my opponents want to take quick shots at me as best as they can.”

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