Political shift in Northeast unfolding Democrats emerging as viable challengers on Republican ground; CAMPAIGN 1996


MANCHESTER, N.H. -- The leaves are turning color these days, and so is the complexion of New Hampshire politics. After decades as a Republican stronghold, the Granite State seems prepared to hand its four electoral votes to President Clinton and perhaps to elect a Democratic governor.

Moreover, opinion polls show Democrats running even or nearly so in challenges to Republican Sen. Bob Smith and two Republican-held House seats.

In the end, the Democrats are unlikely to win all those contests. But that they are genuinely competitive is evidence of a shift to the Democrats all over the Northeast this year -- the flip side of the realignment that has turned the South increasingly Republican in the past decade.

With the election less than a month away, Clinton leads Bob Dole by at least 10 percentage points in Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, West Virginia and the District of Columbia, for a total of 127 electoral votes, with 270 needed for election.

Clinton carried those states in 1992 -- but in most cases probably only because of the presence of Ross Perot on the ballot as an independent.

In New Hampshire, Clinton polled 39 percent, to 38 percent for George Bush and 23 percent for Perot.

But this time, the president is running far ahead because of the weakness of Dole and the estrangement some Republican moderates feel from a party led by House Speaker Newt Gingrich and influenced by cultural conservatives like Pat Robertson.

The marquee contest here is the campaign for governor between Jeanne Shaheen, a 49-year-old Democratic activist, and Ovide M. Lamontagne, a 39-year-old Republican who is chairman of the state Board of Education and is conservative on social issues.

Shaheen came to attention as state campaign director for Gary Hart's upset success in the 1984 presidential primary here. She has since run two gubernatorial campaigns for other candidates and served three terms in the state Senate, where her focus on bread-and-butter issues like keeping down utility rates has helped dilute the liberal image that is poison in New Hampshire politics.

More to the point, unlike most Democrats who have run here, Shaheen has taken "the pledge" -- that she would oppose the enactment of either a state income tax or a sales tax.

Meanwhile, Lamontagne is trying to shed the extremist label he acquired from his opposition to federal aid under the Goals 2000 education program -- which many conservatives say has a liberal slant -- and his acquiescence in one school district's decision to teach creationism.

Polls show Shaheen taking 30 percent to 35 percent of the Republican vote, most of it from moderates put off by Lamontagne's actions in office and his opposition to abortion rights.

"I'm a lifelong Republican," said Martha Nelson, a private-school teacher, "but this is not my party, so I'm ready to vote for Jeannie and even Clinton."

Shaheen is also holding onto some conservative Democrats who have supported Republicans for governor in the past. "Working-class Democrats are a lot happier than usual with their candidates and their party," said Dick Bennett, a poll-taker here.

Lamontagne, a pleasant, soft-spoken lawyer, is fashioning his campaign along traditional lines.

"The issue is taxes and spending," he told the Manchester Rotary Club the other day. "We need someone who is serious about balancing the state budget. Better government is not bigger government."

But Shaheen is focusing intently on electric rates, a perennial here, and on ensuring that there is enough school funding.

"The race is not about taxes and spending," she told the Rotarians. "It's about who's going to fight for families."

She depicts her opponent as "focused on fringe issues" rather than practical questions of governance. "We can't have a governor getting sidetracked on ideological issues like teaching creationism in the schools."

Lamontagne won his nomination last month by upsetting Rep. Bill Zeliff, whose conservatism was not strong enough -- he supports abortion rights, for example -- to satisfy the editorialists of the Union Leader here.

The Republican candidate concedes, as he put it in an interview, that he was "never the establishment candidate" but argues that he doesn't deserve the extremist label. "She's a mainstream liberal," he said, "and there's nothing wrong with that. I'm a mainstream conservative."

pTC But Shaheen may have found political gold in the rejection by Lamontagne and retiring Gov. Steve Merrill of $9 million from the Goals 2000 federal program on the ground there would be too many federal regulations attached.

"Most people know that's money for New Hampshire, and they know we need that money," she said.

There is one issue that has not been fully developed but could become critical in the campaign -- the legalization of video-lottery machines to help prop up the state's four racetracks, as such machines have done in Delaware.

Lamontagne opposes the video machines on the grounds that they would amount to "casino gambling" and would attract undesirables. But Shaheen, hamstrung by her promise not to enact sales or income taxes, supports the machines as the only practical source of new money available.

"This is the only option I see to provide for property-tax relief while funding the schools," she said.

Shaheen says her polling data suggest that voters are about evenly divided on the issue. But Bennett, the poll-taker, says a clear majority oppose the gambling machines. The question is whether the issue becomes a major point of contention, as Lamontagne is trying to make it.

Some experts on state politics say the issue could slow those Republican defections to Shaheen. And Thomas J. Rath, a Concord lawyer and Republican activist, contends that if Lamontagne can win back even half of those voters, he can overtake Shaheen.

But there are other questions that are pushing moderates away from the party. Although the abortion issue has not been part of the political debate here this year, delegates to a Republican state convention voted the other day, 201 to 198, to include in their platform the strict anti-abortion language that was written into the national party platform -- a gesture that Lamontagne might have preferred be left unmade.

The trend toward Democrats is being felt down the line. Dick Swett is running dead-even with the incumbent Sen. Bob Smith, a Republican. In another district, Joe Keefe is within two or three points of John E. Sununu, a Republican who is the son of the former governor and White House chief of staff. And Deborah Arnesen, a liberal Democrat, is running even with Rep. Charlie Bass.

Lamontagne refuses to blame Dole. "I don't feel like I'm being hurt by Dole," he said. "People are quite willing to cross over."

But at the moment, those crossing over -- all across the Northeast -- appear to be mostly Republicans.

Pub Date: 10/12/96

Copyright © 2020, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad