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Capital Beat

Capital Beat: A senator, a blogger and an engine repairman wander into a presidential campaign . . .

A down-on-his-luck U.S. senator isn’t getting much traction in his presidential campaign – until a chance encounter with an Iowa engine repairman provides him with homespun wisdom that helps him get his groove back.

Rick Santorum? John Kerry?

Try Pennsylvania Republican Sen. Phil Granby, who vaults from the back of the pack into a dead heat with the GOP front-runner, Florida Gov. Bob Morgan. But while the presidential campaign moves from the fields of Iowa to the West Side of Manchester, nefarious forces take aim at Granby and his new everyman adviser, Glenn Tupper.

That’s the plot of Tell It Like Tupper, a new novel by J. Mark Powell, the former communications director for New Hampshire congressman Frank Guinta who’s now working for South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson.

Powell, a former television journalist, said he hasn’t worked on a presidential campaign, but “I’ve covered a bunch of them from the news end. . . . I think that’d be great fun one day.”

In the meantime, he has his book, which he says he wrote in 2006 and unsuccessfully shopped to publishers before revising the manuscript and self-publishing in November through Archway Publishing.

It doesn’t have the dramatic tension of, say, House of Cards, and some of the characters veer into caricature – quirky political blogger Jarma Jordan is described as usually dying her hair “a shade of bright red that would have made Lenin proud,” wearing thrift-shop clothes, constantly craving vodka and cultivating “a certain uncertainty about her sexual orientation.”

(And, just to make a parochial critique, there’s much more action in Iowa than in New Hampshire, which Powell said reflects “just the chronology of the campaign calendar. As a general rule, they tend to spend more time in Iowa first, through increasingly they’re shuttling back and forth.”)

But Powell clearly had fun writing the book. And he makes his point, charting the forces of political mudslinging and media scandal-seeking that entangle a fundamentally decent politician and a good man who seeks no publicity on his own, but finds it anyway.

Despite the troubles faced by Granby and his new friend Tupper in the book, Powell said he still believes a good person can be elected president.

“There’s something about the American nature – we expect Abe Lincoln to walk out of the woods, ax over his shoulder, untainted by politics. . . . That’s not the way the system works,” Powell said. “But I do think we yearn for a . . . decent person to come forward and say, well, you may not be a member of the Mensa Society, but if you’re a good, decent person with a good internal compass, that’s good enough. It’s part of the American nature to always be hoping for the best.”

Pricey oil

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen thinks $20,000 is a pretty good price ceiling if you’re in the market for an oil painting of a Cabinet secretary.

Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat, and Oklahoma Republican Sen. Tom Coburn last week introduced the Responsible Use of Taxpayer Dollars for Portraits Act.

It would limit the use of taxpayer money to $20,000 per portrait of a federal official, and only if it’s someone in the presidential line of succession. If a portrait ends up costing more, private funds could help pay the bill.

Of course, as a former governor, there’s a painting of Shaheen hanging in the State House in Concord. But private donations paid for it.

“At a time when vital services and programs are facing cuts, we need to be looking at every way we can stop excessive spending practices in Washington,” Shaheen said in a statement. “Official portraits should be done in a way that protects taxpayers, as we do in New Hampshire.”

Candid camera

U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster had a rough week.

It started with a video of the Democrat blowing a question at a recent town hall about the political hot potato that is the 2011 terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya – a stumbling non-answer complete with what the New Hampshire Republican Party described as a “deer in headlights” look.

That earned Kuster days of hostile coverage, from national outlets and conservative websites alike, as well as attacks from her two announced Republican opponents in the 2nd District.

“Congresswoman Kuster’s indifferent and ill-informed response to a constituent’s question about Benghazi raises concerns about her commitment to the men and women who serve our nation overseas and to the citizens of New Hampshire’s 2nd District,” said state Rep. Marilinda Garcia in a statement.

“We deserve better, when concerned citizens have questions for their member of Congress — it is their duty and responsibility to answer them honestly,” said former state senator Gary Lambert in a statement of his own.

This isn’t the first politically awkward video of Kuster floating around – as the National Republican Congressional Committee was pleased to point out. Her “Eff him!” while grabbing a tracker’s camera appeared in not a few TV ads during last year’s campaign, and her “life is expensive” remark during a WMUR interview this year wasn’t a huge help following the revelation she’d been repeatedly late paying her property taxes.

For what it’s worth, Kuster’s office says she wasn’t as clear as she wished she had been during the Benghazi exchange.

“Like all Americans, I was horrified by the tragic attack on our embassy in Benghazi that killed four patriotic Americans,” Kuster said in a statement. “Our focus must remain on finding those responsible, bringing them to justice, and taking every necessary step to prevent an attack like this from ever happening again.”

The nonpartisan Cook Political Report last week moved the 2nd District race from “likely Democratic” to “lean Democratic.”

“Republicans are jumping all over a video of a November town hall meeting in which Kuster appeared at a loss to address the Benghazi controversy, but our real reason for changing our rating of this race is the entry of two credible Republicans: former state Sen. Gary Lambert, an Iraq veteran, and state Rep. Marilinda Garcia, regarded as a rising star in the party,” wrote David Wasserman.

College reunion

When Gov. Maggie Hassan and Delaware Gov. Jack Markell spoke to reporters from Washington last week to call for new restrictions on air pollution produced by “upwind” states, it was a bit of a college reunion.

Hassan and Markell both attended Brown University, and at roughly the same time – she graduated in 1980, and he graduated in 1982.

According to Hassan spokesman Marc Goldberg, the two were “acquaintances” during their college years.

DGA gig

During her trip to D.C., Hassan picked up a new title that comes with a national platform: vice chairwoman of the Democratic Governors Association.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin was elected to another term as chairman of the DGA, which provided significant financial support to Hassan in her 2012 campaign.

NRCC vs. CSP

If you live in the 1st District, get ready for a long 11 months.

Democratic Rep. Carol Shea-Porter represents one of the nation’s swingiest swing districts, and the NRCC is trying to soften her up even as Guinta and Dan Innis gear up for a contested GOP primary.

The NRCC last week began airing a 60-second radio ad featuring a woman who says the health plan used by her and her sick husband was dropped by their insurer, and replaced with a new plan that doesn’t include their local hospital.

“Over a third of New Hampshire’s hospitals are not covered through Obamacare,” a male voice intones. “That’s not what the president and Carol Shea-Porter promised.”

The Anthem Blue Cross Blue Shield plans available through the new insurance marketplace use a “narrow network” that doesn’t include 10 of the state’s 26 acute-care hospitals.

Shea-Porter cried foul, noting that Anthem’s individual-plan customers in New Hampshire can renew their current plans for 2014.

“This ad is false,” spokesman Ben Wakana said in a statement. “Washington Republicans should take down their misleading attack ads and stop frightening Granite Staters who hold individual policies from Anthem, because they can indeed renew their policies and keep their current doctors and hospitals.”

The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee hit back, too.

“This new attack is just more proof that Republicans including Frank Guinta and Dan Innis are on a vicious mission to repeal the Affordable Care Act and go back to a broken system that was leading hardworking Granite Staters into bankruptcy,” said DCCC spokesman Marc Brumer in a statement.

The $21,000 ad buy is split between the Manchester and Portland, Maine, markets, and will run nine days through Wednesday, according to NRCC spokesman Ian Prior.

Final column

After more than a year at the State House, and four years at the Monitor, this is my final column. Next month, I’m joining The Wall Street Journal in Washington, D.C.

To every source who took my calls, even when they really didn’t want to: thank you. To every reader who wrote in with tips (and constructive criticism): thank you. To my editors at the Monitor, who gave me this amazing opportunity: thank you.

Laura McCrystal will be taking over the State House beat, and this column. She’s a Notre Dame graduate and ace reporter coming off a successful run as the Monitor’s City Hall reporter in Concord.

Send her your congratulations (and news tips) at lmccrystal@cmonitor.com.

Quick takes

∎ Happy birthday to state Sen. Nancy Stiles (tomorrow).

∎ Spotted in Representatives Hall last week: four shiny new “scoreboards” to track bills and pending motions, part of the ongoing upgrade of the House’s mid-1970s electronic voting system.

∎ Political consulting firm Purple Strategies will open a New England office in January. It’ll be based in Boston, but led by two veteran New Hampshire operatives – Republican Pat Griffin and Democrat Jim Demers.

∎ Litchfield Republican Rep. George Lambert has decided not to run for governor, saying Friday he’s still recovering from an October heart attack.

But he said he’s trying to recruit two GOP gubernatorial candidates: former House speaker Bill O’Brien and ex-Newt Gingrich state campaign manager Andrew Hemingway. (O’Brien’s his first choice.)

(Ben Leubsdorf can be reached on Twitter @BenLeubsdorf.)

I concur with Hambledon and Gen_X-er, congratulations Ben and good luck at the WSJ. If the Monitor does one thing well it is develop many excellent young reporters.

You've done a fine job at the Monitor, Ben. I'm sorry that you are leaving, but best of luck at the Wall Street Journal. I echo Gen X er's comments about the Monitor's development of excellent young reporters.

To Ben Leubsdorf: Congratulations on the new job! The odds are against those entering journalism today. Sadly, the Monitor seems to be a stepping stone for many young staffers, but it's totally understandable. It's tough for a small, hometown paper to compete with Boston, New York or Washington. And props to the senior editors at the Monitor for finding young raw talent and developing their craft through the years.

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