As N.H. Electorate Shifts, GOP Senator Faces Threat Sen. John Sununu is considered one of the most vulnerable Republicans in the Senate this year. He's once again facing former New Hampshire Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, whom he narrowly defeated in 2002, but the political landscape is completely different this time around.
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As N.H. Electorate Shifts, GOP Senator Faces Threat

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As N.H. Electorate Shifts, GOP Senator Faces Threat

As N.H. Electorate Shifts, GOP Senator Faces Threat

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is Day to Day. I'm Madeleine Brand.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I'm Alex Chadwick. Coming up, a mystery story, who is stealing the campaign yard signs in southwest Michigan, and what for?

BRAND: First, though, Democrats are salivating over the prospects of winning a majority in the Senate, a filibuster-proof majority. One of the most vulnerable Republican seats is in New Hampshire, and that's held by John Sununu. He narrowly defeated former Governor Jeanne Shaheen six years ago. Now, he's facing her once again, but this time, the circumstances are a lot different. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: Senator Sununu sat down recently for chicken parm and salad at a Rotary Club lunch as he's done countless times before. But this time, you could sense the higher stakes.

(Soundbite of restaurant)

SMITH: Not usually one to shoo away reporters' microphones, Senator Sununu is perhaps a little more careful these days, as he tries to convince voters who are furious about the economic turmoil not to blame him.

Senator JOHN SUNUNU (Republican, New Hampshire): I saw problems on the horizon not a year ago, or two years ago, but five years ago...

SMITH: 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. 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. And as the son of New Hampshire's former governor and White House chief of staff John Sununu, the senator is also well-known to voters like retiree Virginia McBride.

Ms. VIRGINIA MCBRIDE (Resident, Laconia, New Hampshire): I just think he's a good man. He came here and gave my brother his ribbons from World War II. I liked his father when he was in office.

SMITH: Sununu the governor?

Ms. MCBRIDE: Yes, his father.

SMITH: But such loyalists are more scarce these days, as New Hampshire has morphed since the last election from a red state to purple and now blue.

Dr. ANDY SMITH (Director, University of New Hampshire Survey Center): This isn't your father's New Hampshire anymore. The state is different now than it has been in past years.

SMITH: University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith says a huge influx of Democratic-leaning voters and a slew of young people who have just become voting age have tipped New Hampshire away from the Republicans. So, while last time, Sununu ran in a red state on the coattails of a still-popular President Bush, today, with the economy a mess, the president terribly out of favor and John McCain lagging as well, Sununu has not only lost the tailwind he once enjoyed, but, Smith says...

Dr. SMITH: He's running uphill into a headwind with ankle boots on.

(Soundbite of church bells)

SMITH: 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 each season a more intense shade of blue.

Ms. GILLIAN DAHLKE (Resident, New Hampshire): Whoever the Democratic candidate is I will vote the party line.

SMITH: Whoever it is?

Ms. DAHLKE: Yes.

SMITH: You don't know who's running.

Ms. DAHLKE: Not in this area, nope, since we just got here.

SMITH: But whoever the Democrat is that's your pick.

Ms. DAHLKE: Yes.

SMITH: Twenty-six-year old Gillian Dahlke, who moved to New Hampshire from Connecticut last month, is a gimme for 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.

Former Governor JEANNE SHAHEEN (Democrat, New Hampshire; 2008 Senatorial Candidate): Jeanne Shaheen, very nice to meet you.

Mr. KEVIN COUTURE (Resident, Dover, New Hampshire): Hey, good luck. You got my vote.

Gov. SHAHEEN: Thank you.

SMITH: As Shaheen shook hands at a local manufacturing plant, sales engineer Kevin Couture, a lifelong Republican who voted for Sununu and President Bush, said he's now planning to vote for Shaheen and Barack Obama.

Mr. COUTURE: 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 it clean, and let's start over again.

SMITH: It's a theme that Shaheen has been hammering in her TV ads.

(Soundbite of Shaheen campaign ad)

Unidentified Man: The truth is Sununu and Bush got us into this mess. Only new leadership will get us out.

SMITH: And it's a play just about every Democrat in the country is using this year, but the so effective is the strategy in New Hampshire, even Sununu is trying it. The Republican incumbent is running TV ads that tie his Democratic challenger to Bush, with tape from 2002.

(Soundbite of Sununu campaign ad)

Unidentified Man: So, when you hear Jeanne using the same old, tired attacks, remember where she stood.

Gov. SHAHEEN: I'll stand with President Bush. I'll stand with President Bush. I'll stand with President Bush.

SMITH: 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 this year. Voters are angry and worried, and both history and polls suggest they're going to want to punish the party in power. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

BRAND: Stay with us. NPR's Day to Day continues.

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