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Published: Saturday, 11/27/2010

GOP hopefuls lining up in New Hampshire

NORTH CONWAY, N.H. - There's a blanket of white on Mount Washington, a whiff of snow in the air down here in the valley. Everywhere in the North Country, there is the sense of a change of season, not only in the distant hills but also in the political environment.

The new political season is about to start, if it hasn't already.

When the fall campaign began, New Hampshire was the bluest of states. When it ended this month, red skies of deep atmospheric change were everywhere.

The two Democratic seats in the U.S. House - gone. The Democrats' 14-10 advantage in the state Senate - vanished, the Republicans now holding sway by an astonishing 19 to 5. The Democrats' 222-176 margin in the state House - obliterated, the new margin being 298 to 102 with the GOP in unambiguous charge.

But there is more. The Executive Committee, which confirms gubernatorial appointments and every contract of more than $5,000, had a slim 3-2 Democratic margin. In January, Republicans will hold a 5-0 advantage. Democratic Gov. John Lynch will need three Republicans to approve the mere appointment of a justice of the peace.

What this means for the national political picture is clear. The New Hampshire primary, for six decades the first in the country, will be conducted in an atmosphere that has been altered substantially. The Republican candidates' challenge: transferring the energy and passion that transformed the state into a formidable political movement.

Some of this has started. Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts retains a strong presence here. Gov. Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota has been here several times. Former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania has made six visits, along with seven to Iowa and six to South Carolina. He will be back soon.

Gov. Haley Barbour of Mississippi has made two trips, Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana one. Former Gov. George Pataki of New York has a significant presence. The rules are different here.

So is the atmosphere from when the political Brigadoon last set up its stage here. The two GOP U.S. House victories and the triumph of former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte in the race to assume the Republican Senate seat being vacated by Judd Gregg gave potential Republican candidates a staging area for their own efforts and gave local Republicans a new burst of energy and empowerment.

All of which is why the 2012 presidential campaign is already stirring here.

"You can't start any faster than the day after the midterm elections, and it started the day after the midterm elections," says former Gov. John Sununu, the state Republican chairman. "Those who ran last time have residues of campaigns here. Those who didn't run took advantage of the fact that we were trying to rebuild the party and came and helped."

As a result, a new group of people moved into politics here, developed personal relationships, and got infected with the political bug. Some of the big catches as the presidential candidates begin to assemble their staffs: Six young people who worked for the state committee became terrific political operatives and now are coveted potential shock troops for the 2012 primary.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has not been in this state since a three-hour tour she made when she was the Republican vice-presidential candidate in 2008. She did endorse Ms. Ayotte, despite the Ayotte campaign's efforts to keep its distance.

New Hampshire may have some surface similarities with Alaska - the snow on the surface in January, for example - but this may not be fertile territory for Ms. Palin. Unlike the Iowa caucuses, which are a strictly partisan affair, the primary here is open to independents, who in New Hampshire are the biggest voting bloc, making up about two-fifths of the rolls. With no apparent contest in the Democratic Party, independents may surge into the GOP primary, changing the texture and nature of the contest in a way that presents great hurdles for Ms. Palin.

Ms. Palin's role in the 2012 political calculus is, of course, the biggest variable. Implicit in it is the role of the Tea Party, the insurgency that provided so much energy for the Republicans even as it sucked so much attention from party regulars. Tea Partiers have only now begun to influence the Republican caucuses on Capitol Hill, where they have endangered earmarks and grabbed the political momentum.

Their next target of opportunity is the presidential campaign. The question is whether they can further change a political environment that already is altered considerably - and whether the race for the White House becomes a race for Tea Party support in places such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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