Ballot Box

The Sununu Machine

The GOP’s mechanical candidate.

Halfway through last night’s debate between New Hampshire’s U.S. Senate candidates, a woman in the audience stood up and asked whether, in light of the recent sniper attacks near Washington, D.C., the candidates would support legislation to make each bullet traceable to the gun from which it was fired.

The Democratic nominee, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, paused. Her eyes searched the crowd for an answer. “It’s very frightening to watch what’s happened in Maryland,” she said, shaking her head in disbelief. “My heart goes out to the families of the victims.” She concluded with sadness, “All the laws in the country will not prevent a deranged individual from doing what this Maryland sniper has done.”

The Republican nominee, Rep. John E. Sununu, pounced on the question. “This is a horrific criminal act,” he declared in an expressionless voice. “I do think that from all of the reports that I’ve seen,” he added, “the death penalty would be warranted. That’s the kind of effective, swift justice that I think we need to make sure that we have an effective deterrence against anyone that would engage in a copycat crime … of this nature.” As Sununu spoke, his hands flicked out from the podium in a vague shrug. His eyes blinked through his glasses at regular intervals, like wipers cleaning a windshield.

Sununu is the latest in a long line of stoic Yankees. His robotic style reflects a little of his father—former New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu—and a lot of other New England pols such as Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., Supreme Court Justice David Souter (a former attorney general of New Hampshire), and former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell, D-Maine.

In Sununu’s primary campaign against Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., this was an advantage. Smith was the pouty, hotheaded, unreliable Republican who had ditched the party when it suited him. Smith said the rift was about issues; his critics said it was about slights. Either way, it was about losing his temper. Sununu made clear he would never do such a thing. He said so in words, but his body language and machine-gun speaking style drove home the point: Robots don’t flake out.

Sununu polished off Smith on Sept. 10. Now he’s up against Shaheen, and his mechanical manner isn’t wearing so well. In last night’s debate, Sununu showed off his grasp of policy detail by rattling off lists of legislation and parsing the fine points of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Shaheen offered ironic circumspection; Sununu offered wonkery. She smiled during their pointed exchanges; he didn’t. He looked like the student council president. She looked like the teacher.

Sununu’s answer to the sniper question epitomized his performance. It brought to mind another political son of New England: former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. Fourteen years ago, during a presidential campaign debate, Dukakis was asked whether he would seek the death penalty if a man were convicted of raping and killing Dukakis’ wife. Dukakis replied, in the blandest possible tone of voice, that he wouldn’t. Viewers were dismayed by the governor’s coolness. He lost the race to George H.W. Bush, who appointed as his chief of staff New Hampshire Gov. John Sununu.

Now a new George Bush is wagering his hopes for a Republican Senate on a new John Sununu. Last night, Sununu got another loaded question about violent crime. His mouth gave a different answer from the one Dukakis gave. His body didn’t.