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GOP vs. GOP in New Hampshire

From Sasha Johnson

CONCORD, New Hampshire (CNN) -- New Hampshire's state Republican party has criticized a local GOP organization that publicly urged U.S. Rep. John Sununu to drop his primary challenge of incumbent U.S. Sen. Bob Smith.

"It was inappropriate for the local committee as a whole to get involved in the primary," said Julie Teer, state Republican party spokeswoman. "Everybody understands that at any level, as a whole, we don't engage in primaries."

This week, the GOP committee in Mount Washington Valley, in the northern part of the state, released an open letter to Sununu, who holds one of New Hampshire's two seats in the House, calling for him to drop his bid to unseat Smith, a three-term Republican senator, in the state's September primary.

"Your current course of action causes a divisive primary which jeopardizes the chance of a Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, Republican control in the U.S. House and the possibility of committee chairmanships Sen. Smith's 18 years of seniority will bring," the letter said.

"We have felt this intra-party fighting for over a year now," said Roger Grenier, author of the letter. "We just felt that if everyone sat down and thought about this that the status quo was much more preferable than the risk of a divisive primary."

Smith, a staunch conservative who abandoned the GOP for an ill-fated independent presidential bid in 2000 but later returned to the fold, is widely considered to be one of the most vulnerable Republican incumbents running for re-election this year. Holding his seat is considered important to GOP chances of taking back control of the Senate.

Sununu -- son of John Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor who served as White House chief of staff to former President George Bush -- argues he's the stronger candidate to go up against the expected Democratic candidate, Gov. Jean Shaheen.

In an April survey by the American Research Group, Sununu led Smith by 15 points among likely Republican primary voters.

The Sununu camp seized on the letter as an indication that Smith is not up to the challenge.

"It is not surprising that Bob Smith's campaign fears a contested primary," said Paul Collins, Sununu's campaign manger. "But it is disappointing the Smith campaign would use a local Republican committee in a way that the state committee has said is clearly wrong."

But Smith's campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, said the letter makes a needed point.

"The citizens of New Hampshire deserve the seniority they've grown accustomed to," he said. "Rep. Sununu has a promising career in the House that does things for the state of New Hampshire. The timing of his run is what I question."

Publicly, national Republicans have said they plan to stay out of the primary race, although their policy is generally to support incumbents.

"We're letting those two do their own thing, and we'll wait until after the primary," said one official.

However, some GOP officials are concerned that a rancorous primary could make it impossible for Republicans to focus enough attention on Shaheen.


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