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N.H. Democrats Feel the Energy

But Will There Be Momentum From Primary?

New Hampshire’s Democrats are energized and confident that the momentum they built leading up to last week’s presidential primary will carry over into the fall and spare them another drubbing in November.

“We got killed in 2002,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan conceded. “This year’s going to be very different.”

Despite her upbeat tone, the party has yet to field a gubernatorial candidate or find someone to challenge the state’s two Republican Congressmen. And the likely Democratic Senate nominee, state Sen. Burt Cohen, is considered a long shot against two-term Sen. Judd Gregg (R).

Still, Democrats remain hopeful.

Democratic registration before the January primary was 176,634, and now it stands at 197,690, according to Pamela Walsh, the party’s communications director. That increase of 21,506 voters stands in contrast to the state Republican Party, which lost 11,184 members, she said.

New Hampshire voters declare their party registration on the day of the primary, which can lead to quick changes in party make-up. Democrats saw a record voter turnout for their presidential primary last week.

But while New Hampshire Republican Committee Chairwoman Jayne Millerick confirms that her party lost registration due to all the attention being paid to the Democratic White House race, she said the loss was less than 10,000 — from 253,504 voters to 245,325. She cautioned not to put too much faith in the bump, noting that Democratic registration swelled to 212,200 after the 2000 presidential primaries only to shrink before the recent balloting.

Sullivan believes this year will be different.

The Democrats’ chances of keeping those new voters are “very good,” Sullivan said.

She also expressed confidence that the party would recruit competitive challengers into the state’s major races this year.

“I’m in the process of talking to several people — we have four potential candidates” for governor, she said, pointing out that the state’s filing deadline is not until June.

Would she care to name them?

“We’re going to have somebody and the same is true for the Congressional races [but] we’re going to do this on our time frame,” she said. “I’m not ready to name names.”

Sullivan may not be name-dropping, but tongues have been wagging that former Rep. Dick Swett (D) could enter the gubernatorial race. Other potential Democratic candidates for governor include: state Treasurer Mike Ablowich, former ambassador to Belize George Bruno, state House Minority Leader Peter Burling, state Labor Commissioner Jim Casey, businessman Gary Hirshberg, state Senate Minority Leader Sylvia Larsen, University of New Hampshire Trustee John Lynch, former ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago Terry Shumaker, and Billy Shaheen, a former U.S. attorney and husband of former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen (D).

Whoever ultimately accepts the challenge will have to take on millionaire Gov. Craig Benson (R) in a Republican-leaning state.

Sullivan points out that New Hampshire recently elected Democratic governors in two presidential election years, 1996 and 2000. She hopes 2004 will see a repeat of the pattern.

Democrats are somewhat better positioned in the Senate race, where Cohen has been raising money since last January to take on Gregg. However, he only had $247,000 cash on hand as of Dec. 31, 2003.

Cohen is at a significant financial disadvantage now — he thinks he needs $2.5 million to topple Gregg, who ended 2003 with $1.4 million in the bank — but says he can win by appealing to Independents and tying Gregg to the Bush administration.

A poll commissioned by Cohen last October showed 43 percent of voters saying that Gregg deserved re-election, while 40 percent said they were ready to vote for someone else.

Independents are the majority in New Hampshire, making up 38 percent of the electorate, Republicans are next with 34 percent and Democrats comprise only 28 percent.

As for New Hampshire’s two Republican House Members, they currently face no competition, though there are some possible challengers.

Freshman Rep. Jeb Bradley could face an opponent in the Republican primary in the form of Bob Bevill, a key supporter of former White House candidate Pat Bucahanan.

Democrats who may want a shot at Bradley’s potentially competitive 1st district seat include former state Rep. John Kacavas, state AFL-CIO President Mark MacKenzie and state Rep. Peter Sullivan.

So far only Kevin Deguise, treasurer of the New Hampshire Young Democrats, has been named as a potential rival for five-term Rep. Charles Bass in the state’s 2nd district.

The increase in party registration is not a predictor of how people will vote in November, nor does it guarantee quality candidates for the Democrats, Millerick said.

The Democrats have “no announced candidates at the top of the ticket … where will the [primary] energy go without candidates?” Millerick asked.

Walsh says the interest in the Democrats’ White House primary shows people are ready for change, and Sullivan promises all candidate slots will be filled in plenty of time for September’s primary for other seats.

Bob Jean, publisher of the Web site, says the Democrats have only themselves to blame for their current predicament.

When Shaheen was governor the party had a real opportunity to build itself up, he said. Instead, the more liberal wing “just chewed her up and spit her out.”

“She really gave them a chance. If they had followed her leadership, they would be better off now,” Jean said.

Things do look grim for Democrats further down the ballot. Of the 400 state Representatives, only 119 are Democrats and in the state Senate, Republicans hold 18 seats to the Democrats’ six.

“I would like to see a good two-party system,” Jean said. “It’s really one party and Independents” now.

Sullivan says she’s working on that by holding seminars and recruiting Democrats to run for office from governor on down.

“We’re focusing on all of it,” she said.

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