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Primary nears finish

Last modified: 9/13/2010 12:00:00 AM
Before she could make up her mind about her choice in tomorrow's primary, Nashua voter Cathy Lambert had to clear up one misconception about Republican Senate candidate Kelly Ayotte.

Lambert wondered: Had Ayotte really been endorsed by the pro-choice Planned Parenthood?

Ayotte, a pro-life former attorney general who fought against Planned Parenthood in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, was unequivocal. "No. Not at all," Ayotte said, referring Lambert and a friend to the Supreme Court case - and to her endorsement by the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List.

But, Ayotte added, "I'm so glad you asked."

For the top Republican U.S. Senate candidates - Ayotte, Ovide Lamontagne, Bill Binnie and Jim Bender - this weekend provided one last chance to clear up misconceptions, meet voters and sign up supporters.

Ayotte's Saturday started at the Bedford dump and ended at the Lee speedway, with stops at a Carroll County lobster bake, a Manchester National Guard deployment and a Seacoast chili fest. The other candidates were similarly busy. The Monitor caught up with Ayotte, Lamontagne and Bender at a lunch with Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Nashua yesterday. Binnie was campaigning with a state Senate candidate in Newmarket.

When voters cast their ballots - which will also include Tom Alciere, Gerard Beloin and Dennis Lamare - it will mark the end of a contentious primary race that has seen numerous twists and turns, has commanded national attention and could end up being the most expensive U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire history. The winner will face Democratic U.S. Rep. Paul Hodes in the November election.

Ayotte, ahead in the polls, is trying to hold on to the lead that she has maintained throughout the race. Lamontagne is hoping a last-minute surge at the grass roots will be enough to compensate for his lackluster fundraising. After campaigning for months on his business experience and fiscal conservatism, Binnie is recasting his image as a social moderate, hoping to appeal to independents. Bender is hoping a wave of newspaper endorsements and creative advertising will turn into an upset win.

After months of ads, literature, endorsements, polling and punditry, these last days could be the most important. Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said he has not done a poll since July, on the assumption that it is impossible to predict turnout - and most voters don't know whom they will choose.

"I think more than half the voters will not make up their minds until after Sunday," Smith said last week.

 Kelly Ayotte

In April 2009, Ayotte wrote an e-mail to a friend hoping that if she got into the race early enough, she could prevent a primary. Though she didn't, Ayotte has the advantages that comes with reaching out early - to donors, supporters and a campaign staff with experience in New Hampshire politics.

Ayotte has been more successful at fundraising than any other candidate in the race - courting donors and endorsements locally and nationally. She raised more money - $2.8 million - than Lamontagne, Binnie and Bender combined. Some came from pitching her candidacy early to Republican senators and lobbyists. But Ayotte also raised more money from New Hampshire donors than the other Republicans combined.

Just last week, Ayotte announced the support of U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican, and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum. And, after having swept up nearly every possible endorsement from law enforcement over the past few months, Ayotte got one more, from the New Hampshire Association of Chiefs of Police.

When Ayotte was criticized for agreeing to a $300,000 settlement with Planned Parenthood of New England, in which the state paid Planned Parenthood's legal costs in a dispute over New Hampshire's parental notification law, the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List announced that it would help Ayotte with radio ads, web ads and voter mobilization. The National Right to Life Committee defended Ayotte's pro-life credentials.

Similarly, when Binnie attacked Ayotte for her stance on gun rights, Ayotte rolled out a group of 100 "sportsmen for Kelly," featuring gun shop owners and outdoorsmen.

Though Ayotte has been criticized for failing to catch the alleged Ponzi scheme run by Financial Resources Mortgage, she has said the case never reached her desk. Numerous negative advertisements on the topic seem to have had little effect on her polling numbers.

Ayotte has stuck to Republican Party principles, most of which are common to all of the candidates - cutting spending, lowering taxes and helping businesses. She has said the difference between her and the other candidates is her record as a tough-on-crime attorney general. She talks about her husband - a small-business owner and Iraq war veteran.

"I have a record of tough conservative leadership," Ayotte said yesterday.

Republican strategist Tom Rath, who is not affiliated with any campaign, said the primary fight could make Ayotte a stronger general election candidate if she is nominated.

"She showed she can take a punch and be resilient," Rath said.

 Bill Binnie

For a time, polls pegged the primary as a two-way race between Ayotte and Binnie. Binnie, a multimillionaire businessman with no political experience, loaned his campaign more than $5 million and flooded the airways with paid advertisements. He focused on his resume as a businessman who has created jobs.

But Binnie appears to have been hurt by a fight with the New Hampshire Union Leader and a turn toward negative campaigning. After the Union Leader reported Binnie had relocated a factory from California to Mexico, Binnie demanded a retraction and took out a full-page ad rebutting the article - but the newspaper stood by its story. Binnie's comments opposing the strict new Arizona immigration laws, his pro-choice stance and his prior donations to Democratic politicians led to a series of ads from the conservative advocacy group Cornerstone Action tagging Binnie "shockingly liberal" - a description the Ayotte campaign picked up on. A group of former Republican state party chairmen criticized Binnie for campaign donations to Democrats.

After Republican Party Chairman John H. Sununu called for civility, Binnie said the call came too late. He and Ayotte launched numerous attack ads. Ayotte recently sent out mailers attacking Binnie for his views on immigration. Binnie said Ayotte was "handpicked by politicians and lobbyists" and accused her of illegally collaborating with Cornerstone Action.

Last week, Lamontagne's campaign said Binnie's campaign had made negative and misleading phone calls about Lamontagne.

And Binnie sent out a negative mailer saying Bender does not have plans for creating jobs or cutting spending. "The only plan Jim Bender has is to move to Washington," the mailer says.

After months of focusing on his credentials as a fiscally conservative businessman - largely shying away from the social issues - Binnie last week embraced his moderate social policies in an attempt to target independent voters.

In a Monitor op-ed, Binnie talked about his pride in being a pro-choice Republican. He framed abortion as an individual right to be protected from government interference. He released a TV ad targeted at independent voters in which Binnie says, "I'm a conservative, commonsense businessman; a pro-choice Republican."

The Republican Majority for Choice PAC endorsed Binnie, saying he "embraces the real Republican values of personal freedom, privacy and limited government."

Rath said Binnie's campaign could have made a strong case as a social moderate and fiscal conservative earlier in the race. Now, Rath said, it may be difficult for Binnie to get his message out.

"He can't pivot that quickly at the end," Rath said.

 Ovide Lamontagne

Meanwhile, Lamontagne has done much of his campaigning on a grassroots level. While the other candidates have spent hundreds of thousands - if not millions - of dollars on paid advertising, Lamontagne plans to spend just $20,000, according to campaign spokesman Jim Merrill. He has run just one radio and one TV ad - highlighting the "oath" he made to voters, a 15-point pledge outlining his platform.

Recently, Lamontagne's campaign said it has seen a surge of support. Several analysts said Lamontagne is now Ayotte's primary challenger. Though Tea Party leader Sarah Palin endorsed Ayotte - and recorded a phone message for her, it is Lamontagne who has been winning straw polls at Tea Party events. The national news media have picked up on Lamontagne's campaign, questioning whether New Hampshire will see another "Tea Party" upset. Lamontagne is hoping for a repeat of 1996 - when Lamontagne, then a conservative gubernatorial candidate, beat U.S. Rep. Bill Zeliff in an upset to win the Republican nomination.

Lamontagne's campaign got a boost two weeks ago with the endorsements of the Union Leader and Keene Sentinel. Conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham has been praising Lamontagne. A Magellan Strategies poll conducted Sept. 1 put Lamontagne in second place. Lamontagne picked up another straw poll victory last week at a Pemi-Baker Valley Republican Committee event in Plymouth. And he got the high-profile endorsement of South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, who chairs the Senate Conservatives Fund. He has also received some prominent local supporters - including Senate Minority Leader Peter Bragdon and former gubernatorial candidate Joe Kenney.

"A lot of energy in the grass roots has been building the last couple of weeks, with a number of people reaching out to us," Lamontagne said.

Lamontagne has been campaigning on the image of a candidate with integrity who is the "only true conservative" in the race. Several supporters said those messages resonated with them.

John Mascillo of Bedford signed up yesterday to volunteer for Lamontagne tomorrow.

"He's not such a politician, and he's very conservative," Mascillo said.

Rath said he believes Lamontagne is closing the gap - with a large number of motivated supporters likely to turn out. But the lack of advertising could hurt him. Lamontagne's campaign raised just less than $500,000. And unlike Binnie and Bender, Lamontagne would not self-fund his campaign.

"The absence of his ability to get on TV, spread his message broader than that core group really hurt him," Rath said.

Voters could be wary of a repeat of 1996 - when Democrat Jeanne Shaheen beat Lamontagne in the general election.

Wayne Lesperance, professor of political science at New England College, said Lamontagne's right-wing views could make him attractive to Republicans in the primary but less so to independents voting in the general election. Among his beliefs: Lamontagne supports a constitutional amendment opposing abortion in any circumstance and supports abolishing the federal Department of Education.

"Someone like Ovide will have a challenge attracting independent, moderate members of his own party," Lesperance said.

 Jim Bender

Bender, unnoticed for much of the campaign, hopes Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Scott Brown's former campaign manager, Beth Lindstrom, will orchestrate another Brown-style upset for him. Bender broke through in the race with clever advertising, featuring an Uncle Sam character and his sidekick "Earmark the Pig."

Negative campaigning by Ayotte and Binnie turned several editorial boards toward Bender. Bender picked up newspaper endorsements from the Laconia Citizen, the Eagle-Tribune (and its companion paper the Derry News), Foster's Daily Democrat and the Portsmouth Herald. The papers cited his experience as a businessman and his economic policies. (Ayotte was endorsed by the Monitor and the Nashua Telegraph; Binnie by the Conway Daily Sun.)

Bender has spent most of the campaign touting his experience creating jobs and recently released a series of low-budget web ads featuring Bender's former employees.

This weekend, he enlisted dozens of extended family members to campaign for him across the state - in addition to 30 staff and numerous volunteers.

"There's a lot of energy, enthusiasm and optimism," Bender said. "We kept the campaign about the issues and avoided personal acrimony between other candidates."

Bender said he believes he is the only candidate who can unite all the other candidates behind him to defeat Hodes - and to have an impact on the rest of the ballot.

"I'll make sure we beat Paul Hodes, and I'll carry everyone on my back if I need to to sweep in November," Bender said.

First, he must win tomorrow.


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