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Published: 7/1/2012 - Updated: 1 year ago

COMMENTARY

The battle for New Hampshire

BY DAVID SHRIBMAN
PITTSBURGH POST-GAZETTE EXECUTIVE EDITOR

CHOCURUA, N.H. -- It turns out that there will be far more to the political story here than even Mitt Romney, winner of the Republican primary in January, could have contemplated.

These days, Mr. Romney is running hard in New Hampshire again. So is Barack Obama, who took the state four Novembers ago.

Together, the President, who was in Durham last week, and Mr. Romney, who was in Stratham a few days earlier, are conducting an unlikely but vital battle for a mere four electoral votes. Both believe the November election will be that close.

A generation ago, no one would have thought that New Hampshire, with its sturdy Republican tradition, could possibly be a presidential battleground. Between Franklin Roosevelt's last campaign in 1944 and Bill Clinton's first in 1992, New Hampshire voted Republican every time but in the 1964 Lyndon Johnson landslide.

But since then, this red state has turned purple. Mr. Clinton won the state in 1992 by a hair. And Gov. George W. Bush seized it by just as slim a margin in 2000 -- but would have lost both the state and the election had not Ralph Nader taken about 22,000 votes, almost all of them from Vice President Al Gore.

John Harrigan, a veteran North Country newspaperman, has described New Hampshire as "a jumbled geography of mountains, valleys, and ridges, more than 90 percent woods and water, peopled by relatively few individuals, mostly unposted and open to all." It is the openness that defines the place.

Now it is open to changing colors, from red to blue and then back again twice. The velocity of the change in staid old New Hampshire has been stunning, which is why Mr. Romney's forces believe they will prevail here -- a notion that has prompted Mr. Obama to intensify his organizational efforts.

Two years ago, Democrats controlled the state House (224-176) and the state Senate (14-10), only to become the victims of a stunning GOP surge that gave the Republicans overpowering margins in both, 293-103 in the House and 19-5 in the Senate. Meanwhile, the Republicans took back two congressional seats and elected a senator to an open seat.

Republicans plan to emphasize their nominee's familiarity with the state and his opposition to taxes, part of the state's unshakable orthodoxy. Senior Republicans believe Mr. Romney's profile has a happy resemblance to that of Judd Gregg, a former governor and senator who as a fiscal conservative had great credibility in Concord and Washington.

Republicans have won 29 of the past 39 presidential elections here, but the Democrats are preparing a withering critique of Mr. Romney's gubernatorial years in neighboring Massachusetts and will attack what they describe as Republican obstructionism in the capital.

The independent vote is important in New Hampshire primaries. Nonaligned voters can bounce from one party's ballot to the other's, assuring that both parties reach across the political spectrum in a way that they don't elsewhere.

In a general election, independents can provide a third or more of the votes. And the farther you get from the primary, the more the independent vote rises, because newly enrolled voters tend to be undeclared. These independents are a highly motivated and highly courted part of the electorate.

So while the conventional wisdom renders the bigger states of Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, and Colorado as the big prizes in November, smart eyes also are on this state. As New Hampshire goes, so goes the nation -- or so the theory goes in early summer.

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

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com



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