Concord, N.H. — Meldrim Thomson Jr., New Hampshire's arch-conservative former governor, is battling hard for a political comeback. But despite his 16-hour campaign days and all the help publisher William Loeb can provide through his Manchester Union Leader (the state's largest daily newspaper), Mr. Thomson remains very much the underdog.
The election amounts to a rerun of the 1978 gubernatorial duel, when Democrat Hugh J. Gallen thwarted Thomson's bid for an unprecedented fourth term.
But the man who held the New Hampshire executive chair from 1973 to 1978 scoffs at a recent poll which showed him losing to Governor Gallen by as much as 51 to 31 percent. The voter sampling, by the University of New Hampshire political science department, found only 13 percent undecided on the governorship.
Although now very much back in the Republican fold, the former governor's strength within the state GOP may have been weakened by his dropping away from the party last year in pursuit of the presidency through a national Constitution Party he sought to form.
"I wanted to make sure there would be a conservative on the 1980 ballot, and once Ronald Reagan was well on his way to winning the Republican nomination, there was no reason for me to continue my candidacy," Thomson explains in discussing his short-lived run for the White House.
In contrast to Thomson's unabashed and sometimes strident conservatism, Gallen is a political moderate whose low-key style has made few political enemies. Although a Democrat, he has gotten along well with the Republican-controlled New Hampshire Legislature.
"We proved that Governor Thomson was not the only one who could run the state without either a sales tax or a personal income tax, and we also did it without having to increase any other taxes," Governor Gallen emphasizes. He points out that during his predecessor's regime several state taxes, including those on business profits, corporate franchises, interest and dividends, rooms and meals, and liquor, were hiked
Both gubernatorial candidates have renewed their pledges to avoid further taxation.
Thomson, terming the Gallen performance a failure, charges that "squandering of money" by the Democratic chief executive dissipated a $33 million surplus which was in the state treasury when he left office and says that by the end of the current fiscal year there will be a $30 million to $50 million deficit.
Governor Gallen contends that much of the Thomson surplus was achieved by "delaying payments of state bills" and underfunding of certain programs. The Democratic chief executive denies there will be a budget deficit next June 30. His view is shared by the state comptroller, a Thomson appointee, who has forecast a $10 million to $11 million surplus.
Thomson's defeat in 1976 stemmed in part from his support of a controversial law under which the Public Service Company of New Hampshire, a private utility firm, was permitted to increase rates in order to pay construction costs for a nuclear power plant -- before the plant's completion. Now he charges that his successor went back on his pledge to lower electricity rates.
Governor Gallen points out that, as promised two years ago, he pushed for and signed a statute repealing the construction works in progress charges. Otherwise, he says, New Hampshire residents would be paying substantially higher electric bills.
In renewing his pledge against new or increased taxes, former Governor Thomson promises a "belt-tightening" with cutbacks made in existing state programs as necessary, starting with public welfare, which he holds has gotten out of hand.
Mr. Gallen similarly promises economies as needed but insists they should not come at the expense of those who need assistance.
The Thomson-Gallen contest has tended to overshadow the US senate race between Democratic incumbent John A. Durkin and Republican Warren Rudman, a former state attorney general. A recent University of New Hampshire poll showed Mr. Durkin leading by 42 to 33 percent, with 25 percent undecided.
But Senator Durkin could be defeated if Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan carries the state by a wide margin.