New Hampshire's GOP
"Senator, I'm a dying breed, I'm a moderate Republican," Bob Warren, a
59-year-old insurance executive, of Bedford, New Hampshire said by way of
introduction to Senator Barack Obama at a small campaign gathering in town
earlier this week.
"There's just not that many of you left," Obama, the Illinois Democrat, said
drawing a laugh out of the crowd. "You might as well call yourself an
"Well, I'm moving in that direction," he replied.
Warren's presence at Obama's event may have been good news for Democrats and
Obama in particular, but it also underlines a real problem for the GOP. As
candidates for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination try to prove
their conservative credentials and set their sights on the Granite State,
they are increasingly out of step with the voters who will decide the
coveted first-in-the-nation primary next January. A growing number of New
Hampshire Republicans are fiscal conservatives who are leery of the social
conservative arm of the party that they feel have steered the leadership
away from the GOP's roots in recent years. New Hampshire recently voted �
without too much drama � to allow gay civil unions. It's also one of the
most liberal states on abortion issues, perhaps a reflection of its
libertarian heritage, and has a growing high-tech economy that has brought
in more moderate or liberal-leaning voters from neighboring states like
Massachusetts. "One of the reasons that you're not seeing conservative
candidates doing well in our polling is that there's no one here to talk
to," said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey
Center . "New Hampshire has very low rates of church attendance."
All of which means candidates vying for the conservative mantle, such as
Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee or unofficial candidate former Tennessee
Senator Fred Thompson, could face an especially uphill battle there. "The
more conservative candidates are going to have a difficult time in New
Hampshire," said Smith. "In five to 10 years New Hampshire will be a
consistently Democratic state. It's already kind of that way."
The numbers certainly bear that out. Until 2000 the state was majority
registered Republican, but it's now 44% undeclared, 30% Republican and 26%
Democrat. In the 2006 elections, the GOP lost 91 state legislature seats,
six of their 16 state senate seats and both their congressional seats; no
wonder Fergus Cullen, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party called
it, a "tsunami." For the first time in more than a century the Democrats now
control all levels of New Hampshire government: both chambers of the
legislature and the governor's house. While Cullen stresses that tsunamis
recede � as recently as 2002 Republicans controlled the legislature, the
governor's House and the entire U.S. Congressional delegation � he
acknowledges the party needs to revitalize its approach. "The old Republican
campaign strategy � run as a Republican and turn out your base to get
elected � no longer holds. You have to be talking to voters about issues
rather than just appealing to partisanship."
That's not something a candidate like Mike Huckabee necessarily excels at.
The same afternoon as the Obama event, 18 miles away Huckabee was speaking
to a Rotary Club gathering at the Nashua Country Club. During the question
and answer session, Jim McCormick, a semi-retired consultant from Nashua,
challenged Huckabee on his stance on whether creationism should be taught at
"The President doesn't write eighth grade science books," Huckabee joked,
though it fell flat with the audience of about 100. The former Baptist
minister then took a different tack: "Look, I wasn't there when the world
was started. But I do know that however it was started God was behind it."
All McCormick, an independent voter who is candidate shopping for 2008,
heard was "heartless pandering to the religious right. It really is very
dangerous for a national leader to take chances like that, that is so out of
step with the sciences. In what other matter will religion count?"
The tough grilling didn't seem to discourage Huckabee who, in an interview
in the club's driveway, argued that he can appeal to New Hampshire voters.
Riding high after a surprisingly strong second-place showing at the Ames
Straw Poll in Iowa, Huckabee is trying to build momentum and even drawing
comparisons with Pat Buchanan's populist run in 1992. He pointed to his
popularity in Arkansas, a state that's 62% registered Democrat � though it
has voted twice for Bush. When asked if he might skip New Hampshire to focus
on more conservative states like Iowa and South Carolina, as suggested by my
colleague Joe Klein, Huckabee bristled. "Joe would be shocked at the kind of
response we're getting here. I fully expect that our campaign will do well
enough to win New Hampshire; I realize that's a bold, outlandish thing to
say, but I wouldn't bet against me out here," Huckabee said.
Despite his optimism, Huckabee is barely registering in recent UNH polls,
which have the two most moderate candidates, Romney and Giuliani, leading
Thompson and McCain. Much of the focus in the national Republican race, of
course, has been on the two vying frontrunners, but it's been primarily
concerned with whether they can convince the party's faithful that they are
true believers. But it was after watching the Republican debates � so
focused on social issues and light on policy � that Warren, who has never
voted for a Democrat, decided to check out Obama. Though he's not ready to
switch his party registration, he is considering voting for a Democrat.
"I'm one of these cynical people who, over the last 20 years, have become
cynical about politics and politicians and the ability of the federal
government to get anything done," Warren told Obama at the house party. "I
want to be inspired, can you inspire me?"
Warren left only half satisfied. "He's close, but he's not there yet," he
said. He plans on looking at the GOP candidates in the field before making
his final decision, but none of them light a fire under him the way Obama
does and he's already ruled out Huckabee and Thompson as too conservative.
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