New Hampshire's GOP Challenge

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Jocelyn Augustino / Redux

Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, while campaigning in New Hampshire, fields a question during a luncheon of the Nashua Rotary Club held at the Nashua Country Club on August 20, 2007.

"Senator, I'm a dying breed, I'm a moderate Republican," Bob Warren, a 59-year-old insurance executive, of Bedford, New Hampshire said by way of introduction to Senator Barack Obama at a small campaign gathering in town earlier this week.

"There's just not that many of you left," Obama, the Illinois Democrat, said drawing a laugh out of the crowd. "You might as well call yourself an Independent."

"Well, I'm moving in that direction," he replied.

Warren's presence at Obama's event may have been good news for Democrats and Obama in particular, but it also underlines a real problem for the GOP. As candidates for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination try to prove their conservative credentials and set their sights on the Granite State, they are increasingly out of step with the voters who will decide the coveted first-in-the-nation primary next January. A growing number of New Hampshire Republicans are fiscal conservatives who are leery of the social conservative arm of the party that they feel have steered the leadership away from the GOP's roots in recent years. New Hampshire recently voted — without too much drama — to allow gay civil unions. It's also one of the most liberal states on abortion issues, perhaps a reflection of its libertarian heritage, and has a growing high-tech economy that has brought in more moderate or liberal-leaning voters from neighboring states like Massachusetts. "One of the reasons that you're not seeing conservative candidates doing well in our polling is that there's no one here to talk to," said Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center . "New Hampshire has very low rates of church attendance."

All of which means candidates vying for the conservative mantle, such as Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee or unofficial candidate former Tennessee Senator Fred Thompson, could face an especially uphill battle there. "The more conservative candidates are going to have a difficult time in New Hampshire," said Smith. "In five to 10 years New Hampshire will be a consistently Democratic state. It's already kind of that way."

The numbers certainly bear that out. Until 2000 the state was majority registered Republican, but it's now 44% undeclared, 30% Republican and 26% Democrat. In the 2006 elections, the GOP lost 91 state legislature seats, six of their 16 state senate seats and both their congressional seats; no wonder Fergus Cullen, chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party called it, a "tsunami." For the first time in more than a century the Democrats now control all levels of New Hampshire government: both chambers of the legislature and the governor's house. While Cullen stresses that tsunamis recede — as recently as 2002 Republicans controlled the legislature, the governor's House and the entire U.S. Congressional delegation — he acknowledges the party needs to revitalize its approach. "The old Republican campaign strategy — run as a Republican and turn out your base to get elected — no longer holds. You have to be talking to voters about issues rather than just appealing to partisanship."

That's not something a candidate like Mike Huckabee necessarily excels at. The same afternoon as the Obama event, 18 miles away Huckabee was speaking to a Rotary Club gathering at the Nashua Country Club. During the question and answer session, Jim McCormick, a semi-retired consultant from Nashua, challenged Huckabee on his stance on whether creationism should be taught at schools.

"The President doesn't write eighth grade science books," Huckabee joked, though it fell flat with the audience of about 100. The former Baptist minister then took a different tack: "Look, I wasn't there when the world was started. But I do know that however it was started God was behind it."

All McCormick, an independent voter who is candidate shopping for 2008, heard was "heartless pandering to the religious right. It really is very dangerous for a national leader to take chances like that, that is so out of step with the sciences. In what other matter will religion count?"

The tough grilling didn't seem to discourage Huckabee who, in an interview in the club's driveway, argued that he can appeal to New Hampshire voters. Riding high after a surprisingly strong second-place showing at the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa, Huckabee is trying to build momentum and even drawing comparisons with Pat Buchanan's populist run in 1992. He pointed to his popularity in Arkansas, a state that's 62% registered Democrat — though it has voted twice for Bush. When asked if he might skip New Hampshire to focus on more conservative states like Iowa and South Carolina, as suggested by my colleague Joe Klein, Huckabee bristled. "Joe would be shocked at the kind of response we're getting here. I fully expect that our campaign will do well enough to win New Hampshire; I realize that's a bold, outlandish thing to say, but I wouldn't bet against me out here," Huckabee said.

Despite his optimism, Huckabee is barely registering in recent UNH polls, which have the two most moderate candidates, Romney and Giuliani, leading Thompson and McCain. Much of the focus in the national Republican race, of course, has been on the two vying frontrunners, but it's been primarily concerned with whether they can convince the party's faithful that they are true believers. But it was after watching the Republican debates — so focused on social issues and light on policy — that Warren, who has never voted for a Democrat, decided to check out Obama. Though he's not ready to switch his party registration, he is considering voting for a Democrat.

"I'm one of these cynical people who, over the last 20 years, have become cynical about politics and politicians and the ability of the federal government to get anything done," Warren told Obama at the house party. "I want to be inspired, can you inspire me?"

Warren left only half satisfied. "He's close, but he's not there yet," he said. He plans on looking at the GOP candidates in the field before making his final decision, but none of them light a fire under him the way Obama does and he's already ruled out Huckabee and Thompson as too conservative.