Democrats May Hammer GOP In Granite State

New Hampshire has been rock-solid Republican since before the Civil War. But this could be the year that the Granite State's GOP crumbles.

Of all the states in the nation, New Hampshire provides the Democratic Party with its best chance of sweeping an entire Republican delegation from office. Such a shift would not only be important for New England. It would give Democrats bragging rights in a state that every four years dominates national attention with the first presidential primary.

Polls show Democratic candidates are leading in the races for governor and US Senate. The Democrat in one House race is behind, but within reach, while the other House race is a dead heat. President Clinton, for his part, maintains a commanding lead over Bob Dole.

"This is a state undergoing fundamental change," says Jennifer Duffy, an analyst at the Cook Political Report in Washington. "All four races are pretty tight. The Democrats have a better shot than ... ever [of sweeping the state's congressional elections]."

Certainly the state's first-in-the-nation primary last February gave no hint of a possible fundamental shift. GOP voters then selected fiery conservative commentator Pat Buchanan as their choice over the more moderate Senator Dole, mostly for his economic populism. Yet with an influx of high-tech firms and more diverse workforce over the past decade, New Hampshire has become a more complicated state than the conservative primary vote would suggest.

For the most part, Democrats appear to have been better at adjusting to the change. They have seized the middle ground and promise to lead with fiscal restraint. As in many other states, this strategy forces voters to choose between a fiscally moderate Democrat and a socially conservative Republican, and many Republicans here say they would vote Democrat.

Despite the influx of newcomers, voters' priorities have changed little in this state, where license plates proclaim the motto "Live Free or Die." Forty percent of voters here call themselves Republican, 30 percent Democrat, and 30 percent independent. The state tends to vote Republican, but "it's not especially conservative," says Richard Winters, a political scientist at Dartmouth College in Hanover. "It's not a pro-life state. It's progressive in a lot of ways, as long as it doesn't cost any money."

Many Democrats around the country hope that New Hampshire's electorate portends success for other party moderates this year. With popular incumbent Gov. Steve Merrill (R) bowing out of the 1996 race to spend more time with his family, the moderate gubernatorial front-runner is Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

On the main issues, Ms. Shaheen sounds as conservative as her opponent, former state school board chairman Ovide Lamontagne. She vows to veto any attempt to create a state income tax or general sales tax and break up the monopoly of public utilities.

"The Republican Party clearly moved to the right," says Shaheen, after a recent debate at Whippersnappers Restaurant in Londonderry. "We don't need an ideologue. We need a governor who will be pragmatic and make things happen."

Shaheen's approach appeals to businessman Mark Oswald, who holds a sign "Republicans for Shaheen." "The Republican candidate does not represent the values of the Grand Old Party," the Londonderry resident says. Particularly troubling, he says, is Mr. Lamontagne's rejection of federal education money [because of the strings attached] and his statement that local authorities could decide to teach Biblical creationism in public schools.

Lamontagne doesn't support creationism itself, GOP officials say, just the principle of local control. "They tend to paint our candidate as extremist," says Marc Chretien, a Lamontagne adviser.

Lamontagne says Shaheen talks conservative, but isn't. "New Hampshire voters expect government to be more creative with limited money," he says. "My chief opponent is a tax-and-spend liberal.... It's irresponsible to suggest big [education] spending programs without suggesting how to pay for them."

But if Democrats cheer for Shaheen, they are rhapsodic about Senate hopeful Dick Swett. The former congressman, ousted in 1994, holds a 5-point lead over incumbent Sen. Bob Smith (R).

The two House races remain close. In the Second District, polls show Democrat Deborah Arneson with 38 percent support compared with 39 percent for incumbent Rep. Charles Bass. In the race to replace departing Rep. Bill Zeliff (R), Democrat Joe Keefe remains 12 points behind Republican John Sununu Jr., son of the former governor. "The intensity of preference for Republican candidates isn't what it has been in the past," says John Camobreco, a political scientist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. With Clinton remaining on top of the polls, "the Democrats are excited, but a lot of undecided Republicans may not show up to vote."

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