CONCORD, N.H. — SEATED in a cozy living room filled with neighborhood couples, young children, and a family dog, state Rep. Deborah "Arnie" Arnesan talks about her vision for New Hampshire.
Over a picnic meal of cold cuts, potato salad, and fresh fruit, Representative Arnesan talks about the state's unfair school funding system, its regressive tax structure, and its unattractive business climate.
"Right now, the way we raise revenue is so regressive and so harmful it is killing us," she says. "... [And] taxes are just one of thousands of things we have walked away from."
Arnesan is running for governor of New Hampshire. And just as this is no ordinary summer house party, so this is no ordinary gubernatorial race either.
This year, voters may have a choice of two women candidates: Arnesan, a liberal Democrat and state Rep. Elizabeth Hager, a moderate Republican. If either one is elected, the winner will be New Hampshire's first woman governor.
"They're both articulate, thoughtful, and knowlegeable legislators," says Mary Chambers, the Democratic leader of the Granite State's House of Representatives. "In many ways they have similar positions. I clearly would like to see a Democratic woman win. But I think it helps all of us if any woman does well."
From a national perspective, these two women are in step with a recent political trend as women candidates around the country run for office in record numbers this year.
So far, five women are running for governor, three for lieutenant governor, 18 for United States Senate, and 134 for the US House, says Pat Reilly of the National Women's Political Caucus in Washington.
And while more women are running for federal office than in years past, a greater percentage are running in state and local races, says Ms. Reilly.
"The story in November may not a large number of women at the federal level, but we will certainly see a great jump in the number of women who are serving in the state and local level after November," Reilly says.
New Hampshire's primary is similar to Montana's gubernatorial primary earlier this month, which also saw two women candidates running from different parties. In Montana's primary race, Rep. Dorothy Bradley (D) beat state Auditor Andrea Bennett (R).
Here in the Granite State, the big issues are taxes, the sour economy, and the state's $400 to $500 million budget deficit.
Both Arnesan and Hager are campaigning primarily on the tax issue. While New Hampshire has no sales or income tax, it has the highest residential property tax rate in the nation. But conservative New Hampshirites have long resisted a broad-based income tax. Candidates that refuse to take the Manchester Union Leader newspaper's "pledge" to veto any state sales or income tax face an uphill battle.
But Arnesan is not deterred. She favors a broad-based tax and would also reduce the high property and business-profits tax. Many people can't afford to own homes because of the sky-high property-tax rates, she says. In addition, she says the public education system, funded by property taxes, is inequitable.
"Quality education is becoming a function of geography. You have communities spending as much as $7,800 per student in one town, as low as $2,900 in another. And that town could be 15 minutes away," Arnesan says.
Arnesan, who is pro-choice, was recently recognized nationally by the Council of State Governments as one of the 32 emerging leaders of the nation.
Hager also favors tax reform, including a state income tax. She is a former mayor of Concord and currently chairs the state House Appropriations Committee. She is also pro-choice but says the most important issue is getting New Hampshire back on a sound economic and financial footing.
"The real issue is economic development," she says. "It should not be talked about separately from tax reform. Looking at our overall tax structure ... is the key to bringing business to New Hampshire and keeping them here."
Each candidate faces a tough battle for election.
Arnesan has a good chance of winning her primary, but faces two serious rivals: Ned Helms, former chairman of the state Democratic party, and former US Rep. Norman D'Amours.
On the Republican side, Hager faces a formidable challenge from Stephen Merrill, a former state attorney-general, and state Senate President Edward Dupont. Mr. Merrill leads a well-organized campaign, while Mr. Dupont has been accused of flip-flopping on the tax and abortion issues.
This year, Arnesan's lively campaign will make the election more interesting than in years past, says Richard Winters, government professor at Dartmouth College.
Arnesan "has the energy and vibrancy that no other candidate in the state of New Hampshire has ever had," he says. "Our candidates tend to be carved out of the same granite as the `Old Man of the Mountain.' They are not the liveliest bunch I've ever seen."