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Bass makes 2nd first impression

Last modified: 9/10/2010 12:00:00 AM
Charlie Bass is hardly a newcomer in the race to represent the 2nd District in Congress. But as Tuesday's primary approaches, the Peterborough Republican doesn't always sound like a man who held the seat for 12 years and earned a reputation as a moderate congressman.

He kicked off his run in February by embracing the Tea Party, calling it "a grassroots movement in America that is going to save our nation." He says he wants to end record deficits, would like to reconsider the 14th Amendment's guarantee of citizenship for U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants and would vote for term limits.

Out of office for four years, Bass has a second chance to make a first impression on voters, and he's balanced calling for change in Washington with touting his own experience there. Bass faces former columnist and radio host Jennifer Horn of Nashua and airline pilot Bob Giuda of Warren, both conservatives, in the Republican primary. Joseph Reilly of Milford and Wesley Sonner of Mont Vernon are also on the ballot.

Horn, the 2008 Republican nominee for the seat, has called Bass "a moderate or a liberal Republican" and dismissed his embrace of Tea Party conservatism as "an election-year makeover."

She said Republicans in the 2nd District have a "clear distinction" on Tuesday's ballot.

"We need new folks in Washington. . . . We have to put an end to the reign of career politicians and Washington insiders," she said at a campaign event this month in Salem.

 Back in the saddle

Bass isn't running away from his 12 years in Congress. His campaign's first TV ad declared that Bass "has the experience we need to change Washington now." A second ad called him "someone ready on day one to challenge and change the Democrats' failed policies . . . a leader with experience to change things now."

But in a year when incumbents across the country have faced rough waters, he isn't embracing the label, either.

"I don't even address the issue of incumbency versus nonincumbency," Bass said in an interview with Monitor editors. "I just talk about what I want to do, and it's different from what everybody else wants to do. . . . If I don't get elected on the basis of my ideas, fine. If I don't get elected because I'm perceived as being part of the problem, not so fine."

Finding the right balance between experience and change is a delicate matter for Bass, said Wayne Lesperance, a professor of political science at New England College in Henniker.

"He's kind of adopting that language that, 'It really is Washington that is the problem, and while I certainly was there, I am going back there to fix what's broken,' " Lesperance said. "So he's trying to have it both ways, and that's smart."

Bass wasn't considered a down-the-line conservative in the House, where he served from 1995 to 2007. National Journal, which ranks the voting records of members of Congress, consistently pegged him as having a generally moderate record, especially on social issues.

In its 2006 edition, the Almanac of American Politics said, "In the House, Bass emphasized that he is an 'independent voice' as he trended toward the center on many issues." And after losing to Democrat Paul Hodes in 2006, Bass became the head of the Republican Main Street Partnership, a centrist group.

But when he announced in February that he would run for his old seat, left open as Hodes runs for the Senate, Bass sought to align himself with the Tea Party movement.

"I love them," he said. "God bless every single one of them. Their agenda is exactly the same as mine."

In an interview last month, Bass appeared to back off that position, saying he shares Tea Party activists' concerns about economic issues.

"To the extent they're associated with stuff other than the deficits and spending, I'm not supporting that," he said.

He said he doesn't want to repeal the 14th Amendment, "but I certainly do support an examination of it . . . and why it needs, may need, to be interpreted differently."

He said he would vote to impose term limits on members of Congress, but "it will never pass, so it's not a real answer."

In a televised debate Wednesday night, he said he would have voted against same-sex marriage if he had been in the Legislature, though he voted against a federal amendment to define marriage in 2006. Bass says it's an issue for the states.

Bass says he's always been a fiscal conservative. But at a Republican meet-the-candidates night in New Boston on Tuesday, he said he supports the Republican Main Street Partnership, backs abortion rights and still opposes a constitutional amendment to define marriage.

"You should not vote for me, because I'm a libertarian when it comes to social issues," Bass told one questioner who pressed him on abortion and same-sex marriage.

Bass emphasized that his experience makes him well-suited to win the general election and make pragmatic changes if nominated.

"We need to nominate a candidate to run as a Republican who has experience and can win in November. . . . We may not agree on every single issue . . . but as Ronald Reagan said, somebody you agree with 80 percent of the time is not your enemy," he said.

 'Fresh, new faces'

Horn is running for the seat as a social and fiscal conservative, calling for a balanced-budget amendment, an end to earmarks and sunset provisions for government spending programs.

Speaking to about a dozen voters last week in a supporter's home in Salem, she pledged to "repeal Obamacare" and called Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer a "hero" for facing off with President Obama over that state's tough anti-illegal immigration law.

"That's the kind of leadership we need," Horn said. "That's the kind of chutzpah we need in our leaders."

Horn said she supports term limits for federal legislators, pledging to serve no more than three or four terms, and has criticized Bass for pledging in 1994 to support term limits, then serving six terms in office.

"I think that's the perfect example of what's so wrong with Washington," Horn said.

Horn generally sounded an anti-incumbent message and said she wants to work with newly elected Democrats who also support reforming the federal government.

"There's going to be an opportunity here for us to do something good," she said.

Giuda, a former state representative, has also staked out conservative positions in the race. For example, he said the House shouldn't fund the massive overhaul of health care championed by Obama and passed earlier this year.

Giuda has said he supports a constitutional amendment to define marriage and believes deregulation and tax cuts are needed to encourage job growth. He said in Wednesday night's debate that he considers himself "an ally of and a friend of the Tea Party movement."

State Rep. Mary Griffin, a Republican from Windham, attended Horn's meet-and-greet with voters in Salem and said she'll vote for her Tuesday.

Bass, Griffin said, had six terms in Washington, and it's time to give someone else a try.

"I think what we need is to have fresh, new faces. . . . It's a shame that people go down to Washington and actually become crooks," Griffin said.

 Deja vu?

In many ways, 2010 looks like 1994, the year Bass was first elected to the House.

The Republicans gained control of both chambers of Congress in 1994. Now, political analysts say November could see the Republicans retake the House they lost in 2006, and possibly the Senate.

"This is starting to look like a repeat of 1994 for the Democratic Party, and 1994 was, of course, the year Charlie Bass won his first term in Congress," said Dante Scala, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. "So it may be that, more than his profile, that gets him back his seat."

Bass, who unsuccessfully ran for Congress in 1980, won the Republican nomination 14 years ago with just 29 percent of the primary vote in a 10-person field.

Bass went on to defeat incumbent Dick Swett, a Democrat, in the general election, 51 percent to 46 percent. Swett's wife, Katrina, is running for the Democratic nomination this year against Ann McLane Kuster, whose mother, Susan McLane, ran ahead of Bass in the 1980 Republican primary, though both lost the nomination to now-Sen. Judd Gregg.

Michael Hammond of Dunbarton, a Republican who ran against Bass without success in 1994 and 1996, said this week he doesn't believe Bass would have been elected in the first place if Hammond and Ward Scott hadn't split the conservative vote in 1994.

This time, he said, it could be different. Horn, whom Hammond said he supports, was endorsed by the New Hampshire Union Leader and may have better luck consolidating the conservative vote in the district, he said.

"I think, and I hope, that it's going to break down to one liberal versus one conservative, Charlie Bass versus Jennifer Horn," Hammond said.

(Monitor reporter Karen Langley contributed reporting to this story.)

(Clarification 9/10/10, 4:30 p.m: The article quoted state Rep. Mary Griffin, a Windham Republican, as saying she plans to vote for Jennifer Horn in Tuesday’s Republican primary in the 2nd District. Griffin confirmed she did say she would support Horn, but says she should have said she would support Horn if Griffin wasn’t already a Rockingham County chairwoman for Charlie Bass’s campaign. She said she plans to vote for Bass. Griffin was also quoted as saying, “It’s a shame that people go down to Washington and actually become crooks.” She said today that she didn’t mean to indicate Bass is a crook.)


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