Shaheen faces new landscape

SOURCE: The Concord Monitor
By Lauren R. Dorgan
Posted: Sunday, Nov. 02, 2008

On the weekend before the 2002 election, President Bush came to the state to rally support for John Sununu in his Senate race over Democrat Jeanne Shaheen. This weekend, before the 2008 election, Bush is nowhere to be found, but his name has cropped up - on Democratic signs that aim to remind voters of the link between Sununu and Bush in hopes of swaying voters to Shaheen.

Democrats in New Hampshire lost almost everything in 2002, including the marquee Senate race: Shaheen, then governor, lost by four points to Sununu, a congressman. Since then, politics nationally and in New Hampshire have changed dramatically, but one thing hasn't: Shaheen and Sununu are back on the ticket, locked in a rematch.

If Democrats in 2002 tried to imagine a 2008 setting for a more favorable Shaheen-Sununu race, would they ask for anything that hasn't come true? Bush's popularity has tanked. Democrats in New Hampshire have nearly erased the Republican edge in voter registrations. A flush Democratic Party has a well-financed operation that dwarfs the state Republicans', and the liberal volunteer base is enormous, driven by enthusiasm for presidential candidate Barack Obama.

"I guess the only thing that might be better is if Bush himself was on the ballot," said Kathy Sullivan, the former chairwoman of the Democratic Party and a Shaheen backer.

"Bush has done quite enough for the Senate race in New Hampshire," said Republican operative Dave Carney, a longtime Sununu partisan who wonders if there's some way for Democrats to list Bush's policies "as an in-kind contribution."

As it was in 2002, the Shaheen-Sununu race is one of the most closely watched in the nation, though it's not seen as one of the most competitive. This time, Shaheen, 61, a former teacher from Madbury, held a lead even before she entered the race. A Monitor poll late last week had Shaheen holding a 10-point lead, 52 to 42 percent.

The ailing economy is the dominant issue. Sununu, 44, a Waterville Valley engineer, has touted his efforts to reform mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and argues that the nation should keep a tax climate hospitable to small business. He voted for the $700 billion Wall Street bailout, which he says was the responsible move to keep the nation's economy afloat.

Shaheen opposed the bailout and has worked to blame Sununu and his party, faulting their deregulation philosophy broadly for the meltdown.

"We're in this economic mess because our leaders in Washington have made the wrong choices," Shaheen said in an interview. She often asks voters to look at the Senate race as a referendum on the state of the nation: "If they like where we are in the country, then they should support John Sununu."

Sununu has done his best to tag Shaheen with the Bush legacy. Back in 2002, Shaheen came out for the Iraq war and for Bush's tax cuts. Sununu has used old clips of Shaheen in a television commercial that's on constant repeat, titled "Remember."

Asked how he's seen Shaheen change since 2002, Sununu says Shaheen has "flip-flopped on Iraq, taxes."

"That just adds to the credibility problems she has," Sununu said.

Some see an almost mirror-image quality to the political environment - and to the candidates themselves - from 2002 to 2008.

"In 2002, (Shaheen) wanted to be a Republican," said Arnie Arnesen, a liberal talk show host. "In 2008, she has the best of all possible worlds. She can run as a Democrat, which is what she is."

This time, in Arnesen's view, Sununu is shying away from his party identification. The word "Republican" doesn't pass his lips much, and when he talks about Bush, it's almost always to describe the times he's broken with his party over the past six years. In a mailer that hit voters' mailboxes this weekend, there's one prominent reference to his Republicanism: A Boston Globe headline that says "Granite State's Sununu often goes against GOP grain."

"Now he doesn't want to be Bush, he doesn't want to be a Republican," Arnesen said. "He's the Jeannie of this election. Put him in a skirt!"

Republicans agree, to a point. "There have been certain ads that he's run that you wonder who's the Republican of this race," says Republican consultant Tom Rath, citing the "Remember" ad.

Those clips aren't the only leftovers from 2002.

The anti-Shaheen message, from Sununu and a variety of Republican interest groups, has been remarkably similar to six years ago: They paint Shaheen as a taxer.

A typical advertisement notes that she signed a statewide property tax as governor, implies without evidence that she backed a state income tax and claims that she would vote for higher taxes in the Senate. (For her part, Shaheen said she'd support rolling back the Bush tax cuts only on those making more than $250,000.)

This message surprises Mark Fernald, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee and income-tax backer who shared a ticket with Shaheen in 2002. "I think it's kind of amazing to me that the world has changed so much in six years, but the Republican message stays the same," Fernald said.

In an Election Day column in 2002, conservative writer Bob Novak argued that Shaheen had run "full speed away from the ideology and even the name of the Democratic Party." He noted that "Heavy Republican artillery" - Bush, Laura Bush, Rudy Giuliani - had come to bolster Sununu.

"In contrast, when Al Gore was scheduled to be here two weekends ago (a visit canceled by Sen. Paul Wellstone's death), Shaheen was going to stay on the other side of the state," Novak wrote.

Democrats running in 2002 were on their own. As Fernald tells it: "There was essentially no coordination in 2002." And he remembers the Gore visit differently. "My recollection is the Shaheen campaign quashed it," he said. "We were really excited about it in my campaign."

This time, in the run-up to the election, Shaheen has rallied with Hillary Clinton and, today, Bill Clinton. Sununu has appeared with Republican presidential candidate John McCain at nearly every appearance McCain has made in the state, but he hasn't appeared with Bush in the state in years.

There's one more difference from then to now: Each candidate's supporters has found less to like about the other candidate, a trend that may have something to do with the negative tone of the commercials and debates in this race.

Losing the last race may have changed Shaheen, said Ovide Lamontagne, the Republican who himself lost the 1996 gubernatorial race to Shaheen.

"My sense is that, having lost once, I'm sure it has a profound effect in how she approaches this one," Lamontagne said. After watching a recent Shaheen-Sununu debate, he said, "she seemed less confident to me. . . . and I think more insecure about the campaign she's running and her position vis-a-vis John Sununu's."

Sullivan, for her part, looks at the debates and sees Sununu becoming more arrogant. "He seems to have started to believe his own press about being such a smart guy. To me, I find it very off-putting."