N.H. Primary: 7 Vie For GOP Senate Nomination

New Hampshire is one of seven states holding primary elections Tuesday. Three-term Republican Senator Judd Gregg is retiring, and a field of seven candidates is seeking the party's nomination to replace him. That senate seat is an important one for the GOP to hold onto in November.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And Im Linda Wertheimer.

Seven states are holding primary elections today and one of them is New Hampshire, where three-term Republican Senator Judd Gregg is retiring. A large field of candidates is seeking the party's nomination to replace him. It's an important seat for the GOP to hold, but the sometimes bruising primary contest also reflects internal battles in the Republican Party.

NPR's Don Gonyea reports from Manchester.

DON GONYEA: The frontrunner for the GOP in this race is former State Attorney General Kelly Ayotte. She says she's the one to keep the seat in Republican hands. Speaking in Nashua on Sunday, she presented a long list of grievances with President Obama and the Congress.

Ms. KELLY AYOTTE (Republican Senatorial Candidate, New Hampshire): Spending money that we don't have, bankrupting our country, mortgaging the future of our children, our grandchildren and great-grandchildren; expanding our government to a country that we are not; getting away from the fundamentals of our United States Constitution. Thats whats this election is about.

GONYEA: Ayotte entered the race as the Republican establishment pick. But in this year of the Tea Party, being the party favorite is not necessarily a good thing. So according to University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala, Ayotte did something very important.

Professor DANTE SCALA (University of New Hampshire): She's made a point of taking positions on hot button issues of importance to conservatives, such as abortion, gay marriage, immigration, gay marriage. She seems to have a coalition of voters that's kept her in the lead, despite a lot of negative attacks on her.

GONYEA: And Ayotte won a big endorsement early on.

Former Governor SARAH PALIN (Republican, Alaska): Hi. This is Sarah Palin, calling to encourage you to vote for conservative Kelly Ayotte for Senate. Kelly is one tough granite grizzly, who has broken barriers, fought off and locked up criminals...

GONYEA: Still, Kelly Ayotte faces three serious contenders, and late polls do show another conservative suddenly gaining ground in the final weeks. His name is Ovide Lamontagne, a veteran of New Hampshire politics, who says that before her Senate run, Ayotte never portrayed herself as a strong social conservative.

As for The Palin endorsement...

Mr. OVIDE LAMONTAGNE (Republican Senatorial Candidate, New Hampshire): While I respect Governor Palin and I respect her star power with our party, which is so important, I think she was wrong on this one, in the sense that if anyone thinks that by her endorsement she's endorsing the most conservative candidate, she is not, clearly.

GONYEA: And this past weekend Lamontagne got a big endorsement of his own from South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, who's been using his own political action committee to try to elect more conservatives.

The other leading candidates in the race include businessman Jim Bender, who's keeping his focus on the economy and not social issues. Bender says Washington needs to lower taxes to help businesses.

Mr. JIM BENDER (Republican Senatorial Candidate, New Hampshire): Part of doing that is recruiting businesses to New Hampshire, which Im very good at doing. And part of it is getting our federal government under control.

GONYEA: Then there's Bill Binnie, another prominent businessman who's running.

Mr. BILL BINNIE (Republican Senatorial Candidate, New Hampshire): Hi. How are you?

Unidentified Woman: Im good.

Mr. BINNIE: I'm Bill Binnie. I'm running for United States Senate.

Unidentified Woman: Oh, right, I recognize your face.

Mr. BINNIE: Nice to see you.

Unidentified Woman: Nice to meet you.

GONYEA: Binnie campaigned in Dover yesterday. He calls himself a traditional New Hampshire conservative, where the focus is fiscal policy. But he's also a Republican who's been outspoken in advocating abortion rights. It's a pitch for independent voters who can participate in today's primary.

Mr. BINNIE: And I think a woman should be allowed, based on her religion and her medical condition, to make those most personal decisions herself. And I think that's what it means to be a conservative - to believe in individual rights and liberties. That's my definition of being a conservative.

GONYEA: All of the action in the New Hampshire's U.S. Senate primary is on the GOP side. Congressman Paul Hodes is unopposed in the Democratic Senate primary. No matter the Republican outcome, Hodes will be the underdog going into the fall. But after today he'll have a good idea of what kind of contest it's likely to be.

Don Gonyea, NPR News, Manchester.

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