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Mr. Smith just might go back to Washington


BEDFORD, N.H. -- When you walk into the re-election campaign headquarters of Republican Sen. Bob Smith, a life-size cardboard likeness of President Bush stands there to greet you, sporting a Smith campaign sticker.

If you want to infer from it that the president endorses him in next Tuesday's primary election against Rep. John E. Sununu, a six-year House member, you're free to do so. Mr. Smith, seeking a third six-year term, certainly likes to leave that impression.

But in fact the best Mr. Bush has done is to authorize a general statement that he favors the renomination of all Republican incumbents. That's not a particularly enthusiastic boost for Mr. Smith, in light of the president's urgent interest in holding all 49 GOP Senate seats in November and picking up one more to gain party control.

With Mr. Smith in the political battle of his life after 18 years in Congress and 12 in the Senate, Mr. Bush has neither spoken out for him nor come to New Hampshire in his behalf.

The simple reason is that New Hampshire's senior senator, if renominated, until recently at least was considered a probable loser in the fall to Jeanne Shaheen, the retiring governor who is unopposed for the Democrats' Senate nomination.

The absence of a Republican president who is very popular in the Granite State from an active role in Mr. Smith's re-election effort contrasts with an endorsement of Mr. Sununu by Andy Card, White House chief of staff.

It underscores that Mr. Smith's defeat in the primary would break few hearts in the vicinity of the Oval Office.

As all but the politically comatose in New Hampshire well know, Mr. Smith's sin was his desertion of the Republican Party in 1999 for a foolhardy independent presidential candidacy, quickly abandoned, and a hat-in-hand return to GOP ranks. Party faithful in the state angrily wrote him off, presenting Mr. Sununu with what seemed a golden opportunity to replace him in the Senate.

But Mr. Smith is a tenacious politician with loyal support among a host of state conservatives. Over the last year, and especially this summer, he has courted them diligently, saying he made a mistake and reminding party voters of all he has done for New Hampshire over nearly two decades in Washington.

While disavowing interest or belief in unfavorable polls, Mr. Smith did manage to raise his standing to the point that he is now rated as competitive in the primary, especially if turnout is low and weighted toward traditional conservatives who still embrace him.

John Dowd, the state Republican chairman, contends that Republicans here for the most part have forgotten Mr. Smith's lapse of GOP faith, and he predicts a very close finish on Tuesday. Because both Mr. Smith and Mr. Sununu have foreign policy and national defense experience in Congress that Ms. Shaheen can't match, Mr. Dowd says, either one of them can beat her in November and keep the seat safe for the GOP.

Mr. Sununu hits the argument hard that he is a surer bet, implying greater stability than sometimes exhibited by the maverick Mr. Smith. In response to Mr. Smith's pitch that his 12 years of seniority in the Senate and a potential committee chairmanship should not be wasted, Mr. Sununu says it's "time for a change" -- although he and Mr. Smith differ only on the margins on key issues.

If there is a major difference between these two conservatives, it is stylistic rather than substantive. Mr. Smith, 61, is gruff and bombastic; Mr. Sununu, 37, is all sweet reasonableness. If Mr. Smith had not gone off the Republican reservation huffing and puffing in 1999, he might be running for re-election unopposed, with President Bush conspicuously at his side, but he did and he isn't.

Whatever the outcome, according to state party sources, the president will be coming into New Hampshire shortly after the primary, openly pledging his full backing for the winner, whoever it is. Keeping that Senate seat is too important to the GOP, and to Mr. Bush, to do otherwise.

Jules Witcover usually writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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