PARTY activists here are hustling to prepare for a heated political contest this fall in the wake of New Hampshire Sen. Warren Rudman's (R) announcement that he will not seek re-election in November due to his frustration with partisan Washington politics.
The list of likely Democratic and Republican candidates is starting to take shape, while some candidates have already made formal campaign announcements. On the list of contenders is New Hampshire Gov. Judd Gregg (R), who will announce tomorrow whether he will enter the race.
"I think there will be a big fight. I think it's going to be a tough election year," says Robert Craig, professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. "I don't think either side can afford to take it easy on that seat."
The sour economy is the single most important issue in this traditionally conservative state, say political observers. Like the rest of New England, New Hampshire has been hit by high unemployment, a troubled banking industry, and a state budget deficit.
Voters are showing signs of frustration with the lack of initiatives from incumbent leaders. Just as the state's many conservative voters rejected President Bush last month for alternative GOP candidate Patrick Buchanan in the presidential primary, so may voters turn away from incumbent Governor Gregg in this election, say political observers.
"People are angry. People are upset. You know it's a tossup. Anything can happen," says state Rep. Robert Daly (R). "I think whoever sends the best message has the best opportunity."
GOP candidate Lawrence Brady, who announced his candidacy for the race last week, believes he has the right message: jobs and economic recovery. He says the incumbent governor has thus far failed to provide leadership in getting the state back to economic health.
"He could have, as governor, had an incredibly pro-active economic growth program. He did not do that," Brady said at a press conference last week. "And what we're going to have, if he's successful in getting to the Senate, is another status quo, elitist approach to government."
Mr. Brady, who ran unsucessfully for Congress last year, served as assistant Secretary of Commerce during the Reagan administration.
Other contenders on the GOP side include lawyer Robert Rabuck and former state attorney general Tom Rath. Mr. Rath, a friend of Gregg's, says he will only run if Gregg decides not to enter the race. Rath says Gregg, who served eight years in Washington as a New Hampshire congressman, has had good experience for the Senate seat.
Republicans believe they have a strong chance of retaining the Senate seat to be vacated by Rudman, the two-term, tough-talking New Hampshire senator who helped craft the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings Act of 1985. The law was meant to rein in federal spending and eliminate the federal budget deficit.
State Democrats feel they have just as good a chance at the seat as Republicans, despite their position as the minority party in this traditionally Republican state.
According to Russell Verney, executive director of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, the Democrats have gained more voters this year than ever. In the last few days prior to the presidential primary, 50,000 voters registered as Democrats or changed their party affiliation from Independent to Democrat, he says. According to his latest voter registration numbers, the breakdown of voter party affiliation is now approximately 40 percent Republican, 39 percent Democrat, and 21 percent Independent.
"I'm not sure it has ever been that close," he says. "I think this is going to be a banner year for Democrats in the state of New Hampshire." Of New Hampshire's two senators and two congressmen, only one - Rep. Dick Swett - is a Democrat.
Among the Democrats who plan on running include businessman John Rauh and physician Terry Bennett. Mr. Rauh ran unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1990. Rauh will make a formal announcement of his candidacy April 7.