CONCORD, N.H. -- When New Hampshire's prominent Republicans gathered here last Friday for former Gov. Meldrim Thomson's memorial services, one question was asked repeatedly behind the scenes: Will two-term Sen. Bob Smith drop out of next year's Senate election? The answer could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate after the 2002 election.
It is highly probable that Rep. John E. Sununu, the ingratiating 36-year-old son of the prickly former governor and White House chief of staff, will announce his Senate candidacy later this year. Sununu had been advised by his father that if he ever wanted to be governor, now was the time. But he does not want to expose his wife and his three small children to the governor's fishbowl.
With an impeded path to the Republican nomination, Sununu would be favored for the Senate against Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. But if he has to run over Smith in next year's primary, the November outcome becomes clouded.
The 2002 contest for control of the Senate figures to be close, and it is hard to imagine the GOP prevailing without the New Hampshire seat. Republican leaders in Washington and Concord concluded long ago that Smith, still bleeding from self-inflicted wounds, is unelectable. But how to convince him to step aside for young Sununu?
Headstrong Bob Smith showed in 1999 that he is impervious to reason. When his feckless campaign for the Republican presidential nomination went nowhere, he left the party with a fierce attack on it (returning in 2000 when the Senate Environment Committee chairmanship opened up). Republicans here agree it will take somebody of the magnitude of George W. Bush -- perhaps offering an ambassadorial appointment -- or Sen. Jesse Helms to convince him that his time in the Senate is over.
"He is over the hill," State Executive Councilor Ruth Griffen, a former Republican National Committeewoman, told me in voicing a view widely held here. That view is supported by Whit Ayres, a nationally recognized pollster hired by Sununu backers. It shows Shaheen, after eight stormy years as governor, losing to Sununu by eight percentage points but beating Smith by six. The Ayres poll for the Republican primary: Sununu 59 percent, Smith 25 percent.
Although Griffen comes from the state party's liberal wing, this is no left-vs.-right confrontation. Sununu, who has inherited his father's brains and his mother's charm, in his third term is a favorite with conservative House leaders and a ranking budget expert. His New Hampshire support ranges from former Sen. Warren Rudman on the left to former Rep. Chuck Douglas on the right.
Smith has been a doughty right-wing warrior, but he has diluted his conservative credentials as Environment Committee chairman. That undermines his campaign theme that New Hampshire should not turn out its first Senate committee chairman since Styles Bridges a half-century ago.
State Rep. Francine Wendelboe of New Hampton, a staunch conservative, told me she fears Smith would be massacred by Shaheen's Democratic attack machine. The governor has plenty of ammunition. Smith's famous Senate floor assault on the GOP is preserved on tape, and he has never retracted bitter anti-Republican sentiments in his letter of resignation from the party.
Smith relied heavily on recent fund-raising visits here by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott and Sen. Bill Frist, the Senate GOP campaign chairman, but their support was qualified. Lott expressed neutrality in any primary fight. Frist, while avowing "I support Sen. Smith 100 percent," said his committee could give him no money.
But Smith has such fervent New Hampshire supporters as David Gosselin, state party chairman three decades ago, who is infuriated by the "intimidation" of Smith. "If Sununu runs against him," Gosselin told me, "we will rip him. If Sununu beats him, we will have a first-class independent candidate (in the general election), and it won't be Smith."
That's what party leaders here want to avoid. Smith swears he will never bow out. But would he turn down being ambassador to Vietnam? Would he refuse a State Department post handling the Vietnam MIA issue? Would he spurn a plea from George W. Bush? These questions were asked in Concord last week.