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The Dartmouth
May 27, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

Sununu, Shaheen go negative in late stages

Editor's note: This is the fifth in a series of articles chronicling the campaigns of New Hampshire politicians running in the 2002 elections.

In New Hampshire's heated Senate race, voters are finding it increasingly difficult to "Live Free" from the onslaught of negative campaigning.

An unavoidable stream of radio, print and television advertisements has spent more time telling voters for whom not to vote rather than praising either candidate based on the issues.

In the final stretch of a race that may decide which party holds the Senate majority for the next two years, the campaigns of Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and U.S. Rep. John E. Sununu, R-N.H., are working frantically to garner votes.

Most political pundits have refused to predict a winner in this electoral battle, which has brought millions of dollars from out-of-state donors and various special interest groups trying to further their legislative clout on issues including abortion rights and corporate freedoms.

In interviews, both Shaheen and Sununu described the other as being a party hard-liner who is unresponsive to Granite Staters' needs. Although each candidate is widely viewed as being politically moderate, the issues that divide them echo the most heated partisan debates on Capitol Hill.

The legislators differ on the government's handling of social security, the environment and the economy, among other issues. And with the impending possibility of a retirement in the Supreme Court, the candidate's stances on abortion have also drawn much attention.

"John Sununu has been very clear that not only does he oppose a woman's right to choose, but that he would support judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade," said Shaheen, who supports upholding abortion rights and is backed by the National Abortion Rights Action League.

Sununu has said that he supports abortion only in cases of rape and incest.

Analysts have predicted that just one of these issues may be what wins over the key to the election: the independent voter.

Comprising one-third of the state's constituents, independents are being heavily courted by each candidate. Shaheen and Sununu have both emphasized that they advocate popularly-supported bipartisan initiatives including Congress' backing of a possible war against Iraq.

The candidates have also worked to woo supporters of Sen. Bob Smith, R-N.H., whose seat they are fighting to fill. After Sununu defeated Smith in September's impassioned Republican primary, the incumbent senator has refused to campaign for his party colleague. Some Smith supporters have organized a write-in campaign for the upcoming election.

Sununu said he remained hopeful that Smith's backers would support him come Nov. 5, adding that Smith has given his endorsement.

"I very much want to win every voter that voted for [Smith] in the primary," Sununu said. "We'll be very successful in unifying the party."

One of Smith's campaign tactics, however, will most likely prove futile in the Shaheen-Sununu race. In the days before the primary, Smith's campaign questioned how Sununu's Palestinian descent would affect his patriotism. But Shaheen's husband is also of Arab descent, making New Hampshire's race the first Senate contest ever between two candidates from families with Arab backgrounds.

Both campaigns said that they have secured a small lead in tracking polls, but by either measure, the race remains within statistical margins of error. Polls throughout the summer indicated that Sununu was the favored candidate among voters.

On Oct. 18, Congressional Quarterly changed its classification of the race from "Leans Republican" to "No Clear Favorite."

Sununu dismissed polling data as an inaccurate measure of voter support, while Shaheen attributed her gains to a more active effort to spread her campaign's message.

"We've been pointing out where there are differences between John Sununu and me," she said. "We're working very hard to let the people of New Hampshire know what my record has been."

Analysts have also attributed Shaheen's recent gains to a massive fundraising movement that has raised nearly three times more than Sununu's campaign, although the governor stressed that Sununu has capitalized on harder-to-track donations made by the Republican National Committee.

Sununu maintained that he has been consistently outspent in prior campaigns and that it has yet to hurt his election chances.

"Given where Gov. Shaheen is, she's probably in a lot of trouble," he said.

Both candidates have emphasized their political experience and accomplishments while pointing out the other's failures. Shaheen, 55, a three-term governor and the first female to ever hold that position, has won much support in a traditionally Republican state. Sununu, the 38-year old son of former President George Bush's chief of staff, is currently in his third term in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he sits on the powerful Appropriations Committee.

But Shaheen faces criticism for her handling of the statewide budget crisis, which includes a $40 million budget deficit and serious education funding holes, as well as the still-unsolved state tax issue. Sununu's opposition to current legislation that would prevent U.S. companies from incorporating overseas has proven unpopular as well.

"I supported tax reform that would get rid of the Bermuda tax loophole six years ago, long before Jeanne Shaheen's consultants told her what the Bermuda tax loophole was," Sununu said, accusing Shaheen of lacking her own solutions to national problems. "Jeanne Shaheen's goal is to create some sort of issue that will hide her failed record in New Hampshire."

The Boston Globe has endorsed Shaheen for Senate, while the Manchester Union-Leader has endorsed Sununu.