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New England Mod Squad Touts McCain

The New England Republican has been placed on the endangered species list, and the remaining few are counting on Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) to keep them from joining the dodo bird and passenger pigeon.

The Northeast was once fertile ground for moderate Republicans, but few can be found in the House or Senate. Fiscally conservative and centrist on other issues, these Republicans found success until a harder-edge attitude took over the party. Their ranks took a beating in 2006 as they were tethered to an unpopular president.

“They are not extinct. I think they are endangered,” said Charlie Bass, president and CEO of the Republican Main Street Partnership and a former GOP Congressman from New Hampshire.

Bass said the moderate Republican exile in the Northeast has been a long process that was magnified in the 1994 GOP revolution. Back then, social issues such as gay marriage and abortion became the centerpiece of the Republican platform, which isolated moderates, Bass said.

McCain has often allied with moderates, though he is more likely to call himself a maverick. And he has shown little enthusiasm for social issues. New Englanders can also take heart in the fact that McCain’s presidential campaign was resurrected in New Hampshire this year, where he remains popular.

The Tuesday Group, made up of moderate House Republicans, held a seminar on the first day of the convention to show off its policy bona fides on high energy prices. Members participating included Reps. Mark Kirk (Ill.), Shelley Moore Capito (W.Va.) and Fred Upton (Mich.). Christine Todd Whitman, the former New Jersey governor and Environmental Protection Agency administrator, also participated.

Moderates in New England are down to one Member in the House — Rep. Christopher Shays (Conn.) — and he faces a tough re-election bid for a 12th term. Democrats have targeted him this year, as he narrowly held on to his seat two years ago.

Shays, who is not attending the convention, is stressing his bipartisan approach as a way to de-emphasize his party affiliation. Shays’ campaign manager, Michael Sohn, said voters are less concerned about whether Shays is a Democrat or Republican than they are about his accomplishments. He quickly noted Shays’ across-the-aisle appeal, pointing out that the Shays has not introduced legislation without Democratic sponsorship.

What has proved to be most problematic for the Republican Party in the Northeast is the widespread anti-Bush sentiment. Bass was slow to blame the unpopular president for the loss of Northeastern moderate Republicans — after all, the Bush family’s political line began as New England moderates. Bass pegged the problem on the rise of the ideological wings at the expense of middle-of-the-road public officials.

In the Senate, New England moderate Republicans have survived. Maine has two, Sen. Olympia Snowe and Sen. Susan Collins, who is in a tough re-election.

In New Hampshire, Democrats have targeted Sen. John Sununu (R), who is facing another battle with his 2002 opponent, ex-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen. Sununu said Democrats would be highly mistaken to try to fix Republicans with Bush.

Although Sununu does not plan to attend the GOP convention, he is sure to attach himself to McCain. In an interview, Sununu repeatedly mentioned himself and McCain in the same sentence, arguing that they both showed courage to buck their party when it proved beneficial for their constituents.

“I took the lead in voting against the Republican energy bill in 2003. … John McCain has a long record of running against [the party].”

Sununu is vying for the same independent voters that McCain relied heavily on to win the state’s primary. Sununu argued that Obama and Congressional Democrats will be proved wrong if they try to attach McCain and the Republican Party to Bush.

“McCain has a proven record of going against the president,” Sununu said. “Obama is highly mistaken if he tries to link McCain to Bush.”