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Hodes Finding Winds of Change Blow Both Ways

MILFORD, N.H. ‘ Anger lurks here. It finds Rep. Paul Hodes on the town oval, between the face-painting station and the giant pumpkins.

The Democratic Senate candidate has spent much of the morning chatting with prospective voters and moving through the Milford Pumpkin Festival under a brilliant autumn sun. He jokes easily and stops to applaud a guitar solo at the children’s music tent.

But shortly after 11 a.m., the pleasant morning takes an angry turn, even with the children streaming past, his wife holding his hand and a reporter watching.

A middle-aged man approaches the Congressman, whose identity is compromised only by the small blue ‘Paul Hodes for U.S. Senate’ sticker on the chest of his green jacket. The man moves closer as he begins talking, almost yelling, about Hodes’ efforts to consult with voters before the health care vote.

He’s just inches away from Hodes’ face at one point. ‘If you can’t stand up to us, how can you ever stand up to Nancy Pelosi?’ the man shouts as Hodes tries to list public events held last summer. But his accuser doesn’t want to hear it and turns away.

The confrontation is brief and intense, but it exemplifies the challenge for this Democrat, who is asking an increasingly frustrated New Hampshire electorate to reward his four years in Congress with six years in the Senate. It doesn’t matter that the Granite State offers a slight Democratic voter registration edge and has trended blue in recent cycles. Hodes is facing an uphill battle in the race to replace retiring Sen. Judd Gregg (R).

And he has yet to find a recipe to ease voter discontent.

But he shrugs off the unpleasant altercation, which came on a morning last week full of far more pleasant exchanges.

‘My sense from everywhere I go, is that there is a quiet majority of people who aren’t as loud as the crazies from the right, but want to see a balanced, independent Senator,’ Hodes says. ‘I’ve been the underdog all along. I’ve been a challenger for a Senate seat that’s been a Republican seat for 18 years in a swing state. That’s where I’ve been all along.’

Ayotte’s 15-point Lead

Eighty miles to the north, a confident Kelly Ayotte glides into Plymouth’s Common Man Inn.

Her confidence is warranted.

There are only friendly faces here, at the Grafton County Republican Committee’s Columbus Day dinner. The excitement is measurable.

The committee has already tripled its typical fundraising total, according to Chairman Bruce Perlo. And they run out of seats before Ayotte addresses the crowd, offering a short stump speech from a podium adorned with two small American flags and a bottle of maple syrup.

‘It’s a great time to be a Republican, is it not?’ asks Ayotte, a 42-year-old former state attorney general, of the male-dominated crowd of 130 local Republicans that includes 2nd district GOP hopeful Charlie Bass and gubernatorial candidate John Stephen. ‘We are going to have a clean sweep on Nov. 2 with your help.’

These people know the seat is Ayotte’s to lose. Since emerging from a bitter mid-September Republican primary, she has consistently polled better than Hodes. Late last week, the University of New Hampshire gave her a 15-point edge.

‘She’s on her way,’ says Raymond Burton, a member of the state’s executive council for more than 30 years. ‘Hodes is not popular in this area.’

But these people also know that Ayotte has faced repeated attacks, from Democrats and Republicans alike, about her record as attorney general, a nonpartisan post to which she was appointed in 2004.

Burton notes that he wasn’t pleased with the refusal of Ayotte’s office to investigate an alleged Ponzi scheme. The issue became a focus during the GOP primary, in which her Republican opponents spent millions of dollars on negative advertising.

‘Kelly Ayotte should have done something,’ Burton conceded before last week’s dinner, shortly after Perlo acknowledged that the primary battle must have weakened Ayotte.

‘How could it not have hurt her?’ Perlo asked.

And the attacks, stemming largely from Ayotte’s decision to release thousands of work e-mails, are continuing.

Hodes’ campaign seized upon a series of e-mails last week showing that Ayotte discussed the death penalty in a high-profile murder case with a political strategist. The issue has attracted widespread coverage in New Hampshire media in recent days.

‘Clearly, in the final two weeks of this race, Kelly Ayotte’s continuing e-mail-gate will haunt her campaign and be a real issue for undecided voters who notoriously break late in New Hampshire elections,’ Hodes’ campaign manager, Valerie Martin, wrote in a campaign memo.

But Ayotte brushed aside criticism when asked before the dinner.

‘It’s an absurd claim,’ she said. ‘He’s grasping at straws because he doesn’t want to talk about his record.’

Outside Spending Hits Hodes

Hodes hasn’t escaped attack. But his most outspoken opponent is not Ayotte.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other national conservative groups such as American Crossroads have dumped more than $2 million into the race so far, and Hodes expects the total to exceed $4 million by Election Day.

‘Hodes voted for the pork-filled stimulus bill; $1.9 million to study ants in Africa; $39 million for office upgrades for politicians,’ says a recent American Crossroads television ad broadcast across the state.

Like other Democrats, Hodes lashed out at spending by independent groups that don’t disclose their donors.

‘Here’s the Chamber of Commerce, which lobbied Congress for health care, lobbied Congress for the Recovery Act, and now has the audacity to go on the air and put up commercials against me for voting for the Recovery Act and for health care,’ he said.

Independent liberal groups have spent just $85,000 on the race so far. And Hodes isn’t likely to get much help from Washington.

Vice President Joseph Biden visited New Hampshire twice on Hodes’ behalf this year, but neither President Barack Obama nor first lady Michelle Obama have plans to make an appearance, though the president has been in New England.

The Hodes campaign notes that Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, David Plouffe, will headline a rally for Hodes Thursday at Keene State College.

But there’s more bad news for Hodes.

Neither the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee nor the National Republican Senatorial Committee currently have any television time reserved in New Hampshire over the next two weeks.

Republicans don’t believe Ayotte needs the help. Democrats have spent more than $100,000 in coordinated spending and field operations in New Hampshire (the NRSC plans to max out at $1.7 million in coordinated expenditures), but they plan to focus television spending elsewhere.

That means Hodes is largely on his own for the home stretch. He reported $547,000 in the bank at the end of September, half of Ayotte’s $1.1 million.

Still, the Hodes campaign insists it can win.

Martin says the Hodes campaign’s internal polling shows Ayotte’s lead is ‘in the single digits.’

‘Kelly Ayotte also has a history of not closing well in elections,’ she wrote. ‘In the Republican primary, she let a lead of nearly 20 percent slip away in the final weeks and barely held on against a vastly underfunded candidate, eking out the nomination by less than 2,000 votes.’

Indeed, the second-place finisher in the GOP primary, tea party favorite Ovide Lamontagne, has embraced Ayotte’s candidacy. But he said that some of his supporters aren’t excited about her.

Still, it’s unlikely that tea party enthusiasts in New Hampshire would sit out the general election ‘ or cast a vote for the Democrat ‘ especially as Hodes struggles to deflect voter anger.

‘The polling is all over the place. It’s hard to tell,’ he said back at the pumpkin festival. ‘Times are tough. And it’s hard to be patient. But we got into to this because of the policies of the Bush administration and the Republicans. Republicans run for office and say government doesn’t work. And unfortunately, when they get elected they prove it.’

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