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Defeated after 1 term, N.H. governor fades out

CONCORD, N.H. -- He quietly slipped from public view yesterday following a historic defeat, an inglorious end for a governor who had stormed into the State House two years earlier promising to use his corporate know-how to reshape New Hampshire government.

On Tuesday, Republican Craig Benson became the first one-term governor in 78 years to lose a bid for reelection, a defeat made more striking by his replacement with a man who, other than party affiliation, cuts a strikingly similar profile to Benson.

Voters ousted the incumbent for Democrat John Lynch, 51, who, like Benson, was both a businessman and political neophyte before seeking the state's highest office.

Observers saw the defeat as a rejection of both Benson's policies and his idiosyncratic governing style, which Democrats and Republicans alike deemed too heavy-handed for staid and tradition-bound Concord.

"It's nice to be back to a governor who will talk to the average person," said Armand Forest, an alderman from Manchester. "Benson had an attitude, it seemed at times. I realize he's a businessman, but that doesn't mean not having time for the average person."

Benson met with defeat on his own terms after the hard-fought race: As his opponent reveled in the upset, he sought seclusion yesterday. He left the State House by lunchtime without addressing his supporters or publicly conceding his narrow defeat to Lynch, who had hammered away at what he had called a pattern of malfeasance and mismanagement in the incumbent's administration.

Jubilant Lynch supporters gathered at the Merrimack Restaurant on Manchester's main downtown street, where the governor-elect promised a new brand of leadership.

"The people of New Hampshire are telling us that integrity matters, that their interests come first," Lynch said before a group of about 40 supporters. "And I am listening to them."

Benson, 50, campaigned far less rigorously in his second bid for office than in his first. By the end of the campaign, he seemed spent and detached. Yesterday he made his only comments to the Associated Press, saying: "I believe in fate. What's meant to be is meant to be."

"I'm an entrepreneur; I see opportunities in everything," Benson was quoted as saying. "There's a reason things happen. I worked hard. I tried my best. I don't have any regrets in what I tried to do."

Despite unofficial tallies that showed a close race, Benson did not request a recount. Lynch won 339,121 ballots cast, or 51 percent, and Benson took 326,618, or 49 percent. It was not clear what effect Senator John F. Kerry's strong showing here may have had on Lynch, because final tabulations were not complete yesterday. The Democratic presidential nominee won the state's four electoral votes.

Observers said the record voter turnout spurred by the presidential contest probably increased the number of anti-Bush voters with anti-incumbent leanings, aiding Lynch.

"Part of Lynch's win was a function of the sporadic voters who had to be motivated to get out and vote Bush out of office," said Dean Spiliotes, a professor of politics at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. "It's possible they voted a straight party ticket."

Lynch, a former furniture company head whose bid for the governorship marked his first foray into elective politics, appeared to have succeeded in turning the election into a referendum on Benson's ethics.

Lynch repeatedly called into question Benson's integrity by highlighting administration embarrassments, including the incident of a gubernatorial appointee who was found to have illegally pocketed $187,000 in government contract fees.

Benson's defeat is an anomaly in this state, which traditionally has been willing to give first-term governors another two years in office. No other first-term governor had been denied reelection since 1926.

Benson's defeat was made much more dramatic because of the way the former head of Cabletron Systems Inc., a computer networking company, had swooped into New Hampshire politics after spending a record $12 million on his first bid for office in 2002. He wowed Concord with a plan to bring corporate-style governance to the statehouse, which he said would bring efficiency and eliminate the need for new taxes.

But Benson's management style, which included an insistence that meeting participants stand rather than sit, drew equal criticism from political supporters and opponents, who saw it as autocratic. Analysts attributed Lynch's win in part to independents and Republicans who diverted their support from the incumbent.

The elections delivered wins to Republicans in other races. The GOP maintained its hold on both houses of the Legislature and both Republican US representatives won reelection, as did US Senator Judd Gregg, also a Republican.

"It's a disappointment that Governor Benson was not successful, and we offer our congratulations to John Lynch," said Jayne Millerick, chairwoman of the state Republican Party. "Overall we have a lot of successes to talk about."

Democrats, meanwhile, said Lynch's win signaled a return to the 1990s, when Democrat Jeanne Shaheen won the governorship and hung onto it for six years, marking a break in Republican control of the State House.

Benson gave little hint about his own future. In a statement, he said that he did not know "what opportunities lay ahead." He said he might "see you all on the campaign trail again."

Sarah Schweitzer can be reached at

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