In 2002, Republican John Sununu of New Hampshire narrowly defeated former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. Six years later, he's facing her once again — but in a completely different political landscape. And all year long, he's been considered one of the most vulnerable Republican members of the Senate.
Sununu recently sat down for chicken and salad at a Rotary Club lunch — as he's done countless times before. But this time, you could sense the higher stakes.
"I would much prefer if you didn't tape our lunchtime conversation," he told NPR.
Not usually one to shoo away reporters' microphones, Sununu is perhaps a little more careful these days as he tries to convince voters furious about the economic turmoil not to blame him.
"I saw problems on the horizon, not a year ago, or two years ago, but five years ago," he says. On the stump, Sununu often talks about his efforts to crack down on risky lending by Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. He casts himself as independent-minded and willing to buck his party.
Not Your Father's New Hampshire
After three terms in the House, the 44-year-old Sununu is the youngest member of the Senate — and some say one of the smartest. His father served as New Hampshire's governor and White House chief of staff under George H.W. Bush, so the senator is also well-known to voters like retiree Virginia McBride.
"I just think he's a good man," McBride says. "And I liked his father when he was in office."
But such loyalists are scarcer these days, as New Hampshire has morphed since the last election from a red state to purple, and now blue.
"This isn't your father's New Hampshire anymore," says Andy Smith, a University of New Hampshire pollster.
"The state is different now than it has been in past years."
Smith says a huge influx of Democratic-leaning voters and a slew of young people who have just reached voting age have tipped New Hampshire away from the Republicans. Sununu ran in a red state last time, on the coattails of a still-popular President Bush. But now — with the economy a mess, the president terribly out of favor and John McCain lagging as well — Sununu has lost the tailwind he once enjoyed.
"It's more like he's running uphill, into a head wind — with ankle boots on," Smith says.
A Theme Of Change
Walk through downtown Portsmouth, and you may be as struck by the autumn leaves turning intense shades of red and gold as you are by the electorate turning a more intense shade of blue.
"Whoever the Democratic candidate is, I will vote the party line," says Gillian Dahlke, 26, who moved to New Hampshire from Connecticut last month.
Shaheen, the former governor, has taken some hits for supporting a statewide property tax and, at one point, a sales tax from voters historically allergic to even the whiff of new taxes. But this year, even some fiscal conservatives seem willing to hold their noses.
Kevin Couture, a 44-year-old sales engineer from Dover, saw Shaheen recently as she toured a local manufacturing plant. A lifelong Republican who voted for Sununu and President Bush, Couture says he's now planning to vote for Shaheen and Barack Obama.
"Something needs to change, and I think if we're going to go in that direction, then let's do a sweep, let's do a clean, and let's start over again," he says.
It's a theme that Shaheen has been hammering in her TV ads — just like many other Democrats across the country this year. But the strategy is so effective in New Hampshire that even Sununu is trying it.
The Republican incumbent is running TV ads that tie his Democratic challenger to Bush, using tape from 2002 in which Shaheen says, "I'll stand with President Bush."
Shaheen dismisses the attack, saying she supported the president and the war initially only because she — and the American people — were misled.
In the end, some analysts say, there may be nothing Sununu can do to win this year. Voters are angry and worried, and both history and polls suggest they may want to punish the party in power.