Savior of the Democrats

Posted: Nov 04, 2002 12:00 AM
CONCORD, N.H. -- If the Democrats keep control of the Senate in Tuesday's election, Gov. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire may be most responsible. She is conducting a picture-perfect campaign against Rep. John E. Sununu in a contest that national Republican strategists prematurely tucked into their pocket weeks ago. In doing so, she runs full speed away from the ideology and even the name of the Democratic Party. Shaheen called a press conference at the Legislative Office Building last week to counter Sununu's latest television ads questioning her six-year stewardship as governor. While praising her own record and attacking Sununu's, she never uttered the "D" word: Democrat. Nor did her remarks even hint of Democratic ideology. She did support making permanent all of President Bush's tax cuts except estate tax repeal. Heavy Republican artillery has rushed to Sununu's rescue. George W. Bush was here Friday, and wife Laura followed Saturday with Rudy Giuliani coming Monday. Sen. Judd Gregg has cut a TV spot in Sununu's behalf, and former Sen. Warren Rudman is expected to be on hand for him this week. In contrast, when Al Gore was scheduled to be here two weekends ago (a visit cancelled by Paul Wellstone's death), Shaheen was going to stay on the other side of the state. Shaheen also keeps her distance from the Democratic candidate to succeed her as governor, State Sen. Mark Fernald. He has signed his own death warrant by advocating what is most unpopular in New Hampshire: a state income tax. A Republican poster, placed around the state, says, "Shaheen and Fernald. The Courage to Raise Taxes." Shaheen's tactics are tailored to a still predominantly Republican state, but her approach also fits a national pattern. The late Sen. Wellstone was so intensely mourned on the left because his undiluted proclamation of the liberal line was unusual. In competitive races nationwide, Democratic candidates follow the lead of National Chairman Terry McAuliffe to go light on program and heavy on attack. Indeed, while avoiding the Democratic label, Shaheen's campaign was devised by two of her party's smartest national strategists: Mandy Grunwald and Marla Romash, veterans of the 1992 Clinton-Gore campaign and experts of attack politics. Stan Greenberg, who helped shape Bill Clinton's winning strategy, advises Shaheen. Trial lawyer, pro-choice and environmentalist lobbies have filled her war chest, which dwarfs Sununu's. "She is the McAuliffe candidate to end all McAuliffe candidates," Republican National Committeeman Tom Rath told me. In a state that has not elected a Democratic senator since 1974, Shaheen evokes fear approaching hysteria among local Republican politicians. She is a soft-spoken, smiling woman who quietly demolishes her opponents -- Betty Crocker with a blackjack. Until now, she has eviscerated every Republican opponent. In her 2000 race for governor, she destroyed former Sen. Gordon Humphrey. Shaheen would have made short work of inflexible Sen. Bob Smith if Sununu had not eliminated him in the primary. Sununu is another matter. At age 38, he combines the brains of his father John (former governor and White House chief of staff) and the warmth of his mother Nancy (former Republican state chairman). He is much harder to transform into a right-wing stick figure. But Shaheen tries. In last week's press conference, she repeated her theme of Sununu "following his party and promoting radical, untested ideas" (the flat tax and private Social Security investment). Her recent attacks have targeted Sununu for protecting the "Bermuda tax loophole" -- based on his vote against a Democratic substitute to pension reform legislation. In fact, Sununu has supported closing overseas tax shelters. Sununu's answer last week was to produce a television ad, showing himself before the camera saying: "I'll always support a guaranteed Social Security benefit. I voted twice to punish companies that go to Bermuda to avoid taxes." That is too defensive for the likes of some New Hampshire Republicans, including Bob Smith diehards. Smith himself cancelled a recent scheduled appearance with Bush, who was campaigning in New Hampshire for Sununu. The senator has not repudiated a Smith write-in campaign, whose Web site openly advocates Shaheen's victory. Not that many votes are at stake, but any conservative defectors are an added dividend for a cool and calculating Jeanne Shaheen.