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Social issues simmer

Ovide Lamontagne isn't talking much on the campaign trail about abortion, same-sex marriage and other hot-button social issues.

'I really don't think that they're relevant at all for this election cycle,' he said during a Sept. 19 radio debate. 'Again, as I travel around this state, the focus is jobs, the economy and reforming state government, and that has to be the primary focus in these times.'

But Lamontagne, a conservative who opposes gay marriage and abortion, is being targeted in radio spots, television ads and mailers by Democrat Maggie Hassan and third-party groups who say his views on social issues are extreme.

'He knows that his positions are out of touch and out of the mainstream, so he's trying to not talk about them,' said Pam Walsh, a senior adviser to the New Hampshire Democratic Party who's working with the Hassan campaign.

Activists on both sides agree that the Nov. 6 election to replace Gov. John Lynch - a pro-choice Democrat who in 2009 signed legislation that legalized gay marriage - is a crucial one.

For the past two years, Lynch's veto pen has stood as a potential block to bills in the Republican-led Legislature that could restrict abortion or repeal same-sex marriage. Come January, depending on the composition of the Legislature, that could change.

'You need a governor to sign the bills, unless you've got a veto-proof majority,' said Marjorie Dannenfelser, president of the Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund, an anti-abortion group that last week endorsed Lamontagne.

'Credentials'

Lamontagne, a Manchester lawyer, wants to repeal gay marriage but allow civil unions and keep any existing same-sex marriages. He's pro-life and has supported a 'human life amendment' to the U.S. Constitution that would ban abortion without exceptions. He says contraception should be widely available but government shouldn't require employers to provide insurance coverage to workers for it. He opposes government funding for Planned Parenthood because the group's services include abortions.

On all of these issues, he differs sharply with Hassan, a former state senator from Exeter who supports gay marriage and opposes restrictions on abortion. But he has also avoided raising them in the campaign.

Over and over, Lamontagne has said his focus is on jobs and the economy, state-government reform and the budget, regulations and taxes. He's said that Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that struck down state abortion bans, is the law of the land and he'd be in no position if elected to change it.

Lamontagne spokesman Tom Cronin wrote in an email that 'the social issues continue to come up in the debates because that is the only way Sen. Hassan can distract from her abysmal record as a tax, borrow, spend and regulate liberal. . . . These issues come up because Sen. Hassan brings them up instead of discussing her own skimpy plans for the state.'

It's a shift from Lamontagne's tone when he ran for governor in 1996. He had built a reputation as a conservative voice as chairman of the state Board of Education and targeted pro-choice U.S. Rep. Bill Zeliff over abortion, defeating him in the Republican primary. He lost the general election to Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

In 2010, when he was running for the U.S. Senate, Lamontagne touted his social-conservative bona fides. He supported a federal constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage - though he said he was open to allowing states to decide whether to legalize such unions - and a separate constitutional amendment to ban abortions.

In this year's campaign, his emphasis has shifted to fiscal and economic issues. But that's not a problem for Bill Smith, chairman of the New Hampshire Right to Life Political Action Committee.

'He's right: The economy is the biggest issue,' Smith said. 'Although there are plenty of people on both sides of the social issues who care about them a lot, a lot of them - including myself - understand that the economy is the most pressing one.'

After all, Smith said, it's not like Lamontagne needs to prove himself to conservatives.

'Ovide definitely has credentials with the pro life community,' he said. 'It's known that he's strongly pro life. . . . It's not like he has to prove that to his base.'

Both sides chime in

Lamontagne may not be emphasizing social issues, but Hassan is. On debate stages and in press releases, she and her campaign frequently accuse Lamontagne of harboring an extreme agenda on women's and social issues.

'Ovide Lamontagne is not being straight with New Hampshire women about his radical ideas to cut access to birth control and criminalize abortion,' said Kathy Sullivan, Hassan's campaign co-chair, in a campaign release Friday. 'Ovide would even make criminals out of women and girls who have been the victims of the crimes of rape and incest.'

Outside groups are chiming in, too.

The anti-abortion Susan B. Anthony List Candidate Fund endorsed Lamontagne last week and intends to spend money to support him, but Dannenfelser said she wasn't ready to release details.

On the other side, a group called Women Vote is paying for direct mail, online advertising, and radio and TV spots attacking Lamontagne for what the group describes as his 'radical, out of touch priorities' and 'anti-woman agenda.' Women Vote is affiliated with Emily's List, a national group that supports pro-choice Democratic women; if elected next month, Hassan would be the only female Democratic governor in the country.

The Planned Parenthood of Northern New England Action Fund and its national counterpart are spending $500,000 on radio ads, door-to-door canvassing, printed literature and other efforts to reach New Hampshire women this fall - a crucial voting bloc for Democratic candidates.

'Certainly the policy positions that Ovide has taken are dangerous for women's health on many levels,' said Jennifer Frizzell, senior policy adviser to Planned Parenthood of Northern New England. 'Defunding Planned Parenthood, that would take away lifesaving cancer screenings and preventive screenings . . . that many women rely on.'

There's been less activity this fall, though, on the issue of gay marriage.

Back in March, the Republican-controlled House killed a bill that would have repealed gay marriage in New Hampshire. At the time, the National Organization for Marriage - which two years ago ran anti-Lynch attack ads to support Republican John Stephen's gubernatorial bid - said it would be back in November.

'Both Ovide Lamontagne and Kevin Smith support traditional marriage,' said NOM President Brian Brown at the time, according to the Associated Press. (Lamontagne defeated Smith in the Sept. 11 Republican gubernatorial primary.) 'We will be very involved in the general election.'

But NOM hasn't bought air time on WMUR or filed any reports with the secretary of state's office to indicate it's making independent expenditures in state races this fall. The group didn't return messages seeking comment.

Similarly, no air time on the Manchester station has been reserved by the Human Rights Campaign, a national pro-gay rights group that endorsed Hassan last month.

Momentum

The greater emphasis on abortion compared with marriage in terms of third-party spending may reflect legislative momentum.

A number of bills emerged at the State House in the last session dealing with abortion, contraception and similar issues, including two - a law requiring parental consent for minors seeking abortion and a ban on partial-birth abortions - that became law over Lynch's veto. The all-Republican Executive Council voted last year to block funding for Planned Parenthood.

Dannenfelser said a record number of restrictions on abortion have become law since the 2010 election, which saw big gains for Republicans across the country.

'That's the trend we want to see continue,' she said, 'but it certainly won't happen without governors to sign that legislation.'

But when it comes to gay marriage, pressure - on both sides of the issue - may be easing. New Hampshire's law was enacted by the Legislature in 2009 and upheld this year, and polls show most residents support gay marriage.

'I think that organizations like NOM and the Human Rights Campaign have plenty of other battles in other states, because we've won in New Hampshire. . . . That's where their energies are being placed,' said Jim Splaine, a longtime Democratic legislator from Portsmouth who sponsored the 2009 gay-marriage bill.

Splaine added, though, that while the urgency of the issue may have faded somewhat in New Hampshire, 'We always have to remember that we're always in danger of losing our rights. All it takes is one election.'

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached at 369-3307 or bleubsdorf@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

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