Nashua, N.H.-- In an ordinary year, John Rauh would seem to be an unpromising candidate for the Senate in a state in which hordes of Republicans come out to vote in presidential elections. He is, after all, not just a Democrat but a confessed liberal who has only lived in the state for six years.
Moreover, Mr. Rauh is facing formidable opposition in the contest for the seat of the retiring Warren Rudman. Gov. Judd Gregg has served five terms in the House and two in Concord and is the son of a longtime icon of Republican politics here, former Gov. Hugh Gregg.
But this is not an ordinary year here by any means. At the moment, Democratic presidential nominee Bill Clinton is leading President Bush by perhaps 10 points, enough to suggest that Mr. Rauh at least may be as competitive as other polls, including one made for his campaign, indicate.
The operative question is whether New Hampshire voters turning away from Mr. Bush will see Judd Gregg as another incumbent who can be blamed for the state's economic distress. Right now, as Mr. Gregg himself points out, the governor is running "well ahead of the president" in polls here.
But Mr. Gregg's support is still not above 50 percent in even the most favorable polls, a level that suggests there could be Clinton coattails or, more likely, Republicans taking a walk away from their party. "Hovering around 50 percent for a New Hampshire Republican isn't a great lead," says poll-taker Dick Bennett of American Research Group. The Clinton factor, he adds, "has to have some impact on the other Republicans but it hasn't shown up yet."
Mr. Gregg is trying to keep the voters focused on what he sees as clear "philosophical differences" between himself and the liberal Mr. Rauh. The Republican governor is using the most traditional Republican approach here by depicting Mr. Rauh as another tax-and-spend Democrat in a state notorious for its aversion to taxes.
And he may be getting some lift from evidence that the state's economy is, Mr. Gregg argues, "picking up incrementally, not dramatically" in contrast to the steep spiral downward in 1990 and 1991. There is even a modest state budget surplus.
Mr. Rauh leavens his liberalism with support for a constitutional amendment to balance the federal budget and for the line-item veto. But the heart of his case is that he has the experience as a success in business to make the economy more competitive in
TC world markets and produce "The crisis is not strictly the deficit," he told a Rotary Club luncheon here the other day. "We're not competing. If we do not deal with both, the crisis is going to get worse."
And he lumps incumbent Gregg with incumbent Bush in their "denial of the problem" on the economy. "The public has lost hope that either Bush or Gregg will lead," he says. "It's time for a change and Rauh might be part of a majority team."
The touchiest issue in the campaign may be Mr. Rauh's support for cutting the defense budget 50 percent over five years, largely by bringing U.S. forces back from Europe, and using the savings as seed money to create jobs and train displaced workers to fill them. It can be done, he says, without sacrificing a "more than satisfactory" defense capability.
But Mr. Gregg is coming down hard on the argument that such reductions in defense spending necessarily would shut down the Portsmouth Navy Yard and cost heavily in New Hampshire jobs. One of his television commercials shows Mr. Rudman, by all reckonings the most popular political figure in the state, making that case against the Democratic candidate.
Unsurprisingly, Mr. Rauh says the argument is nonsense and that as a Democratic senator he would join with Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell of Maine, many of whose constituents also work at Portsmouth, to save the navy yard. If Mr. Gregg is so good at saving jobs, he asks, why did the state lose Pease Air Force Base?
Mr. Gregg also took a hit earlier in the campaign when Mr. Rauh and an independent candidate, Larry Brady, questioned whether his medical deferment from service in the war in Vietnam might have been helped along by the influence of his father. But the issue doesn't seem to have any more sting here than the draft issue does for Mr. Clinton in the national campaign.
In the end, the conventional wisdom here seems to favor Mr. Gregg squeaking by, particularly if Mr. Bush closes the gap in the presidential race. But just the possibility of New Hampshire electing a Democrat to the Senate in a presidential year is news. It just wouldn't happen in an ordinary year.
Jack Germond covers national politics for The Baltimore Sun.