STRATHAM, N.H. — For some, he is Mr. Charisma — smooth on the campaign hustings. But former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown’s U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire hasn’t exactly been the smoothest of rides.
A series of uncharacteristic missteps have hampered Brown. They started before he jumped into the race this spring, making him appear unfocused. Bumbles like this in December, when he was asked what New Hampshire Republicans were telling him about running.
“What I’ve heard from the Republicans up here is they’re thankful that I’ve been around for a year helping them raise money, raise awareness as to the issues that are affecting not only people here in Massachu… uh, in New Hampshire, but also in Massachusetts obviously.”
The gaffes have some wondering if the Republican U.S. Senate Primary in New Hampshire, now less than a month away, is more competitive than it might appear.
Pollster Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, believes Brown will beat out his primary challengers — state Sen. Jim Rubens and former Sen. Bob Smith. But he suggests the contest could be closer than many in the Brown camp care to admit.
Most polls — and they are almost two months old now — show Brown way ahead by 30 points, but with 40 percent of GOP voters still undecided.
And the Mayday political action committee — a super PAC run by Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Lessig — recently said it was getting behind Sen. Rubens with $2 million in media buys on his behalf.
“[Rubens is] running more as kind of a Libertarian, so he can tap into some of that Libertarian, Tea Party energy in the Republican party,” Andy Smith said. “I wouldn’t say he’s got a strong chance of winning, but I wouldn’t say that Brown has this in the bag yet for the primary.”
Brown has at times tried to ignore his challengers. For example, after speaking at a New Hampshire Farm Bureau picnic last week he left while the other candidates stayed to field questions from voters.
Brown has instead focused on the popular Democratic incumbent in the race, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen — trying to convince voters, especially reluctant Republicans, that he’s the most likely to beat Shaheen in the general election.
“Sen. Shaheen has voted with the president over 99 percent of the time on these very important issues, those failed policies,” Brown said at a recent town hall event in Salem, New Hampshire, hammering Shaheen’s voting record and her support of the Affordable Care Act. “The president’s not up for re-election right now, but guess what? His number one supporter is.
“So if you’re questioning and complaining,” he added, “well the best way to do that is to allow me to go down there to be that check and balance.”
It’s a strategy getting traction with some voters, like Jim Boyd and a woman who would only identify herself as Patricia, who spoke to us at Avellino’s Deli, in the bell-weather town of Stratham.
“I think a lot of the stuff that Obama is for is totally what I’m against,” Boyd said. “I’ve had my full of the politicians that we have, so Scott will be a new face and a new look at things.”
“I like what he did in Massachusetts,” Patricia added. “I think he’s honest. He follows through on what he says he’s going to do and he’s got vision and he’s out there with the people. I would give him a chance. Why not?”
But analysts think Brown still needs to galvanize the GOP base. Even one of Brown’s most prominent New Hampshire Republican supporters, former House Speaker Doug Scamman, isn’t ready to drop the victory balloons yet.
“I think he’s ahead, yes,” Scamman said. “And I think he will win, but you never know until the votes are counted.”
James Pindell, political director at WMUR-TV in Manchester, says Republicans are Brown’s biggest problem — especially gun owners who are still smarting over Brown’s support of a federal assault weapons ban after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
The president of the group Gun Owners of New Hampshire has said he’s not a fan of Brown’s record, and pointed out Brown declined to sign a pledge on how he’d vote on gun issues.
Still, Pindell thinks the skeptics will warm up to Brown, that he will win the primary and will make the race with Shaheen competitive.
“Once Scott Brown gets through the Republican primary and they begin to consolidate behind him, we’re going to see this automatically become a single digit race,” Pindell said.
But that’s not where Brown is now.
Most polls this summer, including a WMUR and University of New Hampshire survey, show Brown behind Shaheen by an average of 10 points. Which leads Pindell to conclude that Brown still has a major question to answer.
“Scott Brown’s greatest asset and his biggest problem is the idea of Scott Brown. Why is he running? And he’s got to answer that question,” Pindell said. “If he’s running because he thinks New Hampshire needs a centrist, then OK. If he wants to run to represent New Hampshire because he thinks he can be the best senator, then OK. But if Democrats are going to be able convince people that he’s running because this is an ego trip, that’s going to be a problem.”
With control of the U.S. Senate possibly at stake, Pindell and UNH pollster Andy Smith both predict it’ll be one of the most closely watched races in the country, and the most expensive in New Hampshire history.