JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
There are 11 races for governor this fall. One of the most competitive is in the swing state of New Hampshire. There, Republican Ovide Lamontagne and Democrat Maggie Hassan are vying to replace a popular Democrat who opted not to seek a fifth term.
As New Hampshire Public Radio's Josh Rogers reports, both political parties and outside advocacy groups are pushing hard in a race where neither candidate enjoys a clear edge.
JOSH ROGERS, BYLINE: On many days this election cycle, the biggest name on the stump hasn't been either candidate.
GOVERNOR CHRIS CHRISTIE: Nobody should be immune from seeing those Ovide buttons. No one should doubt where you are.
PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: I know Maggie will do what she says she's going to do, and it will be good for you.
ROGERS: That was New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and former President Bill Clinton. The fact that they are spending time here isn't the only sign this race is a priority for party leaders in D.C. as well as Concord. There's also the more than $10 million of TV ad time that's been purchased by outside groups.
(SOUNDBITE OF POLITICAL ADS)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Hassan pushed 33 tax and fee increases: higher taxes on small business, higher real estate fees.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Ovide would let government come between a woman and her doctor on private health care decisions.
ROGERS: Ovide Lamontagne is a self-described constitutional conservative who's previously run for Congress, governor and U.S. Senate, never before with strong backing from party insiders.
OVIDE LAMONTAGNE: It's very different. I'm not used to this, frankly. And I'm humbled by the support and the enthusiasm of people around the country.
ROGERS: Yet the central themes of this race - taxes and social issues - are familiar. Lamontagne was routed during his first run for governor when Democrats branded him as extreme on social issues. Sixteen years later, Maggie Hassan is taking the exact same approach.
MAGGIE HASSAN: Under my opponent's version of Live Free or Die, abortion would be illegal, creationism could be taught in our schools and the state would be able to prevent loving couples from marrying.
ROGERS: Hassan is a former state senator who's pledged to veto a sales or income tax if elected. But Lamontagne is casting Hassan as someone who raised taxes as a lawmaker, and will do so again.
LAMONTAGNE: Every tax increase, every fee hike takes freedom and liberty and capital away from us, and it funds bigger government, and it chokes our children's future and our own.
ROGERS: Neither Lamontagne nor Hassan is very well-known outside of political circles. Both are lawyers, but they cut very different cultural profiles. Lamontagne plays up his French-Canadian roots, and that he lives in his parents' old house in Manchester. Hassan downplays that her father was a top official in the Johnson administration, and that she lives on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy, where her husband is principal.
One thing the candidates do share: campaigns that mostly argue that the other is bent on changing New Hampshire. According to University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala, there's a good reason for this.
DANTE SCALA: New Hampshire voters don't especially want their governor to be this ideological agent of change. New Hampshire voters want their governor to be on hand in the case of an emergency, but they have this idea of the governor as being like the mayor of this small-town called New Hampshire.
ROGERS: One need only look at the modest approach taken by current governor John Lynch, who often hands voters his cellphone number. With a near 70 percent approval rating, Lynch would have almost certainly won another term if he'd sought it. Instead, he's thrown his support to Hassan. Yet this race may end up being decided by other politicians, ones named Obama and Romney. Pollster Andy Smith directs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
ANDY SMITH: If turnout is high at the top of the ticket for their party, they'll do well. If turnout is not so good at the top of the ticket for their party, they're in trouble in a state like New Hampshire, which is pretty evenly balanced between Republicans and Democrats.
ROGERS: So evenly balanced, in fact, that polls show every major race here running near neck and neck, from the presidential contest to Hassan and Lamontagne's battle for the governor's office. For NPR News, I'm Josh Rogers in Concord.