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Bass, Kuster Prepare for New Hampshire Rematch

MANCHESTER, N.H. — When Ann Romney took the stage here last week to thank supporters for helping propel her husband, Mitt, to victory in the Granite State, Rep. Charles Bass was among the few individuals she singled out for praise.

No doubt the appreciation runs both ways. Bass, among the most heavily targeted Republican incumbents of 2012, endorsed Romney, and New Hampshire Republicans believe having the former Massachusetts governor at the top of the ticket is essential for the Congressman to fend off a challenge from Democrat Ann McLane Kuster this November. Bass narrowly defeated her in 2010 to win back a House seat he lost four years prior.  

“I think having Mitt on the ballot would help Charlie Bass, especially since he endorsed him and was out there campaigning for him,” New Hampshire Republican strategist Brad Card said. “He’s in the type of district where it’s going to be close.”

Democrats argue that Bass’ political vulnerabilities in the Granite State’s swing 2nd district are too great to be saved by Romney, even if he succeeds in defeating President Barack Obama here 11 months from now. Democrats contend that Obama will win New Hampshire but suggest that even if he doesn’t, his performance will in no way resemble then-Rep. Paul Hodes’ (D) poor showing against now-Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) in 2010.

Kuster, during a lengthy interview in Concord, N.H., the day after the Republican presidential primary that Romney won by 16 points, said Hodes’ top-of-the-ticket, 23-point loss to Ayotte in the last Senate race is responsible for her 3,551-vote loss to Bass. Kuster also believes that her status as the presumptive nominee will enable her to solidify voter support early and focus on contrasting herself with Bass. Last cycle, she had a primary opponent.

New Hampshire Congressional primaries occur late in the cycle — in September — and in 2010, Kuster’s campaign spent about $1 million to win the competitive Democratic contest before it was able to focus on Bass. Sitting in a bagel shop just down the block from the state Capitol, Kuster explained why she believes this race will be different than her first. To begin with, she said, Romney leading the ticket would be “a gift.”

“They don’t have a candidate that can beat the president,” Kuster said.

Kuster plans to target independent voters and Republican strongholds along the Massachusetts border that Bass needs to own if he is to win re-election, and she believes this could be the difference in the 2012 race. Last cycle, in the midst of a GOP wave, she focused on the district’s Democratic bastions, during and after the September primary. That included her home base of Concord, Hanover and northern New Hampshire, known as “North Country.”

“In any normal year, I would have won this seat — and [Bass] wouldn’t deny this. Any Republican you talk to will tell you he barely hung onto this seat,” Kuster said. “Now, we have plenty of time, plenty of energy and plenty of money and resources to go to the deep-red territories — communities, and there aren’t very many left. It’s not even a wave; it’s a ripple that it’s going to take for us to win this.”

Kuster expects to report raising $325,000 in the fourth quarter, to close the year with more than $800,000 in cash on hand. Her campaign has raised more than $1 million since launching April 1 from at least 11,000 individual donors. Unlike in 2010, when the Democrats were under siege nationwide, Kuster is planning on considerable help from the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and several liberal activist groups, including the Progressive Change Campaign Committee.

Bass could not be reached for comment for this story, despite several attempts. But the National Republican Congressional Committee said Bass remains a better fit for the fiscally conservative, socially liberal 2nd district than does the progressive Kuster. Bass’ seat, which also has a strong libertarian streak, has leaned considerably left over the years because of an influx of transplants from Massachusetts and the Midwest.

“While it’s sure to be a hard-fought campaign by both sides, at the end of the day, voters know Charlie Bass and understand he is a truly independent voice with a strong track record of fighting for Granite Staters,” NRCC spokesman Nathaniel Sillin said. “The same cannot be said for Ann Kuster, a partisan who will blindly support more of President Obama’s job-destroying failed policies. The last thing New Hampshire voters want is another rubber stamp.”

In small New Hampshire, the political community is even smaller. Kuster is an adoption attorney by trade and partner in a local law firm. One of her partners is Tom Rath, a longtime Republican operative who advised Romney in the presidential primary. Kuster, noting that her mother served with Bass in the state Legislature, said she considers him a friend.

And, even as she reminisced about shepherding Obama from coffee shop to coffee shop along North Main Street in Concord in 2008, she referred to Ayotte, an outspoken Romney supporter and critic of the president, as a good friend. But the affection stops at the personal.

Kuster says of Bass that “the moderate he used to be no longer exists,” contending that his vote for House Budget Chairman Paul Ryan’s (R-Wis.) budget and Medicare overhaul plan is his single biggest political vulnerability — one that will cost him his job in Congress for the second time. The Ryan vote is important because of the symbolism as well as substance, said a former Kuster adviser who knows the district well.

But Republicans argue that Bass has shown sufficient independence from his party in Washington, D.C., including defying his leadership late last month on the payroll tax extension. Republicans also note that Bass is working as hard as he ever has, on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail, to put himself in a good position to withstand the coming Democratic onslaught.

“A tough race is nothing new to Charlie,” Card said. “He’s raised more money than previous cycles and in my opinion is working harder than [he’s] ever worked.”

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