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N.H. asks if GOP will reemerge from blue tide

NASHUA -- As New Hampshire Democrats trounced Republicans in a slew of races last week, the still percolating question was whether the defeats represented an end of rock-ribbed Republican dominance or a blip of discontent over the Iraq war and its Republican architects.

On the streets of Nashua, the answer transcended party lines.

"This state has gone liberal, no doubt," said Robert Bianchi , 43, a firefighter from Nashua and a registered Republican. "It's tilted because of all the people coming up here from Massachusetts. You see it in this election -- and you see it in how they drive and how they raise their kids."

Tom Reynolds , 45, a registered Democrat from Nashua who works as a cook, said the Democratic moment would pass. "It might take a couple of cycles, but it will go back to Republican control. This was just a referendum on Bush."

No one disagrees that the Democratic sweep was decisive. Democrats booted two incumbent US representatives and will hold both seats for the first time since 1912, according to Secretary of State William Gardner. Democrats also assumed control of both houses of the state Legislature for the first time since 1874. Democrat John Lynch was reelected governor by a wide margin. Even the Executive Council, which advises the governor, yielded to a Democratic majority.

The wins leave in place just two major Republican office-holders: US Senators Judd Gregg, who faces reelection in 2010, and John Sununu, who is up again in 2008.

Political analysts said a combination of high Democratic turnout and tepid Republican turnout combined to create the Democratic juggernaut.

But unusual factors were at play, most notably the groundswell of opposition to the Iraq war, which both winning Democratic congressional candidates made key planks of their campaigns.

"Iraq was not the only issue, but it was front and center," said Carol Shea-Porter, a former social worker who hammered the antiwar message on a shoestring budget.

Paul Hodes, 55, the Democrat and former prosecutor who prevailed over six-term Republican incumbent Charlie Bass in the Second Congressional District, emphasized Bush's connection to the war and repeatedly linked his opponent to Bush.

A widely used piece of Hodes campaign literature showed a close-up of Hodes's face against the backdrop of blue sky and a sign post with three arrows attached. One read, "Bush and Bass," another read, "Mess in Iraq." Both pointed the same way. A third, pointing the other direction, read, "Paul Hodes."

"We stuck to the plan, which was to tie Bass to Bush, every hour of every day," said Reid Cherlin, a Hodes spokesman .

Wayne Semprini , chairman of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee, said that Republicans in New Hampshire had unfairly been tagged with blame for the war, over which he said they had little control. "We had people voted out of office for things that had absolutely nothing to do with local issues," he said.

Mary Ann Crowell, 58, of Brookline was among the ranks of Republicans who voted Democrat in protest over the war, and said it was logical to blame local representatives for what she called a troubled situation overseas.

"People are plain fed up with the games they've been playing and the lies they've been telling," she said, adding that if the Democrats fail to improve the country's foreign policy, among other matters, "We'll get rid of them!"

Politcal analysts said politics of the moment clearly played a factor.

Dean Spiliotes , the director of research at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Iraq had "caused the independents to break toward the Democrats."

But he said, too, the ranks of independents have been growing, thanks to an influx of Massachusetts transplants, who tend to oppose new taxes but lean moderate on social issues.

As of September, undeclared voters made up 43 percent of registered voters, up from 38 percent in 2000. Republicans made up 31 percent of registered voters, Democrats 26 percent.

At the same time, New Hampshire Republicans have found themselves at odds with their party's national leaders, some analysts said. "Older New Hampshire residents who consider themselves Republican are increasingly out of step with national Republicans, who they see as too conservative and too religious," said Dante Scala , a political science professor at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.

The political trend lines in New Hampshire are not a straight trajectory. Democrats have won five of the last six gubernatorial elections, though Republicans have long dominated the congressional delegation and Legislature.

The last Democrat to hold the Second District seat was Dick Swett, who lost to Bass in 1994 after two terms. The last Democrat to hold the First District seat was Norm D'Amours, who held the seat for a decade until 1985. Bill Clinton won the state in 1992 and in 1996, and while Al Gore lost to George W. Bush in 2000, Senator John Kerry took the state in 2004.

Semprini asserted that the 2006 elections were not a bellwether for the state's leanings.

"I will not concede that the state is turning Democrat," he said. "I will concede that a lot of Republicans did not get involved and did not get out and vote."

Semprini said that last week's defeats would probably aid Republicans in 2008, noting that "the silver lining is that this is a wake-up call."

Democrats called the election a turning point. "We have become a blue state," said Shea-Porter, referring the color commonly used to designate Democratic states on national political maps.

Spiliotes said the true test will come in two years, when all eyes will be watching to see if "Democrats can consolidate the wave, of whether this was a one-time thing."

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