Thursday’s Senate campaign events in New Hampshire begin with a morning press conference for Republican Congressman John Sununu. He’s holding it in the legislative office building across the street from the state capitol. This is clearly the turf of his opponent, Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Officially, Sununu has come here to talk about his “growth agenda.” Unofficially, he’s come here to slam Shaheen’s record.
Sununu pats down his hair outside the door as an aide preps him. He seems very conscious that he’s thinning on top. His campaign ads even cut off the top of his head so you can’t see how much hair he’s lost. I don’t see the problem. As a fellow mildly balding guy his age, I think he’s doing pretty well.
Twenty guys in suits are lined up around the podium as he strides in. Actually, 19 guys. There’s one woman in the bunch, and they’ve put her in the middle so the TV cameras will pick her up. These are businessmen who are here to talk about how hard Sununu works to help the local economy. The one guy who isn’t in a suit—he’s wearing a white sweatshirt with a logo—gets called to the mike to speak for family-owned businesses. He’s gruff and beefy with big glasses. He looks like he’s straight out of The Sopranos. He says Sununu “comes from good stock”—a reference to Sununu’s dad, former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu. You can see where this guy is coming from: His kids are smart enough to run his business, and the governor’s kid is probably smart enough to represent the state. Not a bad theory—the younger Sununu strikes me as very sharp—but a bit royalist for my taste. After the Sopranos guy speaks, one of the men in suits steps forward to talk about how Sununu helped his company, which does some kind of military work. It’s a twofer: Sununu is creating jobs and fighting Osama Bin Laden.
A reporter asks Sununu about the lousy national economy. Sununu replies that he’s here to talk about his “positive agenda,” not about “blame.” Well, almost. When the subject is himself, Sununu wants to talk about his agenda because agendas always sound good, whereas records have to be defended. When the subject is Shaheen, however, Sununu is happy to blame. She’s been governor for six years, he notes. School funding is inadequate, health insurers are fleeing, and the state is running a $40 million deficit. What about Sununu’s record? Shaheen has accused him of putting seniors at risk by privatizing Social Security. Sununu is plenty steamed about that. It’s “the lowest form of politics,” he fumes. He claims she’s doing it “to intimidate these older voters.”
An hour and a half later, Shaheen speaks at a Rotary Club luncheon in Laconia, 20 miles to the north. Unlike Sununu, she’s a natural politician. During the preliminary speeches, she claps at the right moments without even looking up from the aide who’s briefing her. She speaks much more slowly than Sununu does. Her head stays in one place, and her eyes shift without blinking from one person to another, as though she were a parrot. She loses her cool just once, when she sees somebody falling asleep near the back of the room. “Am I keeping you up?” she asks.
Shaheen has a very obvious campaign strategy. She talks incessantly about being an “independent voice.” Why? Do the math: Only about a quarter of New Hampshire’s registered voters are Democrats. The rest are evenly split between Republicans and independents. To win, Shaheen needs independents–and for now, she’s getting them. That’s why Sununu’s going after her.
If Sununu’s game is talking about his agenda and his opponent’s record, Shaheen’s game is embracing “President Bush” while criticizing “the administration” on domestic issues. You can pretty much deduce from Shaheen’s speech what her polls must be showing: Bush is popular, the war on terror is popular, drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is unpopular, and independent voters are up for grabs.
Shaheen has perfected the art of talking without saying anything. She’s for using force in Iraq, but with various caveats. She supports Bush’s doctrine of pre-emption, but only if we’re careful about it. She supports his tax cuts, except the ones that only help the rich. She’s for keeping programs that work and cutting programs that don’t. Good luck getting her to spell out what she means. After the luncheon, I ask her whether New Hampshire is losing its aversion to taxes. She says the state has undergone “demographic changes” but doesn’t say what they are. She says that in general, people are willing to spend money on programs “if the value is there.” These are the kinds of answers you give when you’re just trying to stay out of trouble.
Being a governor doesn’t seem like a bad deal. You have to go around eating ham and beans at Rotary Club lunches, but people are very polite to you. During the Q and A in Laconia, somebody even addresses Shaheen as “Your Excellency.” Eat your heart out, Saddam Hussein! After the lunch, as Shaheen is talking to me, the kitchen staff starts clearing tables around us. I put a hand down to protect my chocolate chip cookie, and she glances around the room regretfully. She says she had hoped they’d leave a cookie for her. Oops. There goes that road project in Laconia.
The final event of the day is a Shaheen press conference at the Manchester airport. A protester dressed in trash bags tries to rattle her, to no avail. Standing alongside the mayor of Manchester and a councilman from another town, Shaheen accuses Sununu of failing “to fight for New Hampshire’s transportation funding” in Washington. The mayor chastises Sununu for not getting the feds to pay for Manchester’s needs. The councilman steps forward and says, “I’m a registered Republican, and I want someone who can deliver for me and my community.” Are you kidding? Cities that pig out at the federal trough are why God invented Republicans. But when the chips are down, everybody wants their cookie.