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Mark Shields, nationally known columnist and commentator, is the moderator of CNN's The Capital Gang

Mark Shields: Sen. Smith's primary campaign

By Mark Shields
Creators Syndicate, Inc.

SALEM, NEW HAMPSHIRE (Creators Syndicate, Inc.) -- Not since 1992, when challenger Carole Moseley-Braun upset incumbent Alan Dixon in the Illinois Democratic primary, has a United States senator of either party failed to win renomination. If conventional wisdom and recent public polls are to be believed, two-term New Hampshire Republican Sen. Bob Smith could lose the September 10 primary to 37-year-old challenger Rep. John Sununu, R-New Hampshire.

In a race where two reliable conservatives disagree on few issues and in a year when economic anxiety, probable war with Iraq, and worries over the cost and availability of medical care dominate most voters' concerns, Smith trumpets his Senate seniority and clout, while Sununu emphasizes his electability in November.

Here at a Republican picnic in the town where he grew up, the son of a governor, Sununu called himself "the candidate who can beat Jeanne Shaheen," the state's three-term Democratic governor, who is unopposed for her party's Senate nomination.

After a whimsical failed campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, Smith quit the GOP and in a July 1999 Senate speech condemned his party for being "hypocritical" in its lip-service to the pro-life and gun-rights causes. He then did a U-turn and re-converted to Republicanism three months later, in order to claim the chairmanship of the Senate committee on Environment and Public Works.

With this bizarre saga undoubtedly in mind, Sununu assured the Salem crowd "you can always say if John is in Washington or California or traveling around the world, you're proud of the work I've done, you're proud of my ability ... and you're proud of your United States senator." Smith counters: "You have an incumbent senator. You have an incumbent congressman, and his main criticism is I bring too much (in federal funds) back to the state. ... Our state has only four members in our congressional delegation, but if I'm re-elected in a Republican senate, (New Hampshire Sen.) Judd Gregg and I will both be Senate chairmen making ours the only state with two committee chairmen."

One defect in the Sununu strategy in the seasoned judgment of the state's Republican National committeeman Tom Rath, who is neutral in the senate race, is that "I have never seen 'electability' win a party primary." If a candidate's electability in the form of his greater probability of winning in November really were irresistible to primary voters, then in 2000 Democrats would have nominated former Sen. Bill Bradley for president, while Republicans would have chosen Arizona senator John McCain.

Smith's 'seniority' case sounds a little too much like Washington's "inside baseball,' where people seem to care that some legislator's motion to table takes precedence over some other legislator's motion to recommit. Savvy national Republican operative and New Hampshire native David Carney sums it up: "For real voters, process does not trump substance."

On issues, Smith has shown tactical adroitness. The incumbent runs to the challenger's anti-tax right by highlighting Sununu's vote against a 1998 House amendment that would have prohibited federal judges from forcing localities to raise taxes and then, moving left, reminds voters that he favors and Sununu has voted against permitting New Hampshire seniors to buy prescription drugs much cheaper from Canada. As a self-styled "Teddy Roosevelt Republican," Smith, unlike Sununu, voted against oil-drilling in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

If the three most important factors in real estate are location, location and location, then the three most important factors in an election must be turnout, turnout and turnout. In spite of the biggest-spending GOP gubernatorial primary in the state's history, called a political Demolition Derby because of the wall-to-wall attack ads which were feared would depress voter turnout, New Hampshire's veteran secretary of state, Bill Gardner, predicts 230,000 GOP primary voters, the most ever.

After trailing in spring polls by a 2-to-1 margin, Smith -- through relentless personal campaigning and by substantially outspending his opponent --climbed back into contention. But when asked, "Does senator Bob Smith deserve re-election, or is it time for someone new?" never have more than 40 percent of GOP voters endorsed Smith's re-election.

Ironically, the very combativeness that brought him back could prove to be Smith's undoing. In Tom Rath's opinion: "Voters are worried about their own economic situation, worried about war and peace, about being able to educate their kids and a lot more. With Bob Smith, there could just be a voters' fatigue factor."

November in the Granite State could well be Republican John Sununu against Democrat Jeanne Shaheen for control of the U.S. Senate.


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