ROCHESTER, N.H. -- Against the backdrop of a presidential campaign here that is too close to call, this state's Republican governor is locked in one of the tightest races in the country with a Democrat who has zeroed in on the incumbent's integrity after several ethics scandals.
Even as Governor Craig Benson touts what he calls the New Hampshire advantage -- low taxes, burgeoning population, and high SAT scores -- Democrat John Lynch has hammered away at several embarrassing incidents on Benson's watch, most notably, a gubernatorial appointee deemed to have illegally collected $187,000 in brokerage fees.
The integrity argument has resonated with voters like Lisa McCartin, 57, a political independent who works as a property manager here.
''Benson just seems a little slick," McCartin said after hearing Lynch speak at a Rotary Club lunch at the Rochester Country Club yesterday. ''There have been too many questions about his ethical behavior."
Polls suggest that the race's outcome is unpredictable. A Franklin Pierce College poll reported yesterday called the race even, though others last week showed Benson pulling ahead. In a measure of Republicans' concerns about this race, Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts stumped for Benson over the weekend in the southern tier of the state, the populous region thick with transplants.
The governor's race has been marked by fierce rhetoric floated in a deluge of advertising, some of which has spilled into the Massachusetts television markets. Benson, seizing on Lynch's concession that he would consider a cigarette tax increase, is calling the Democrat a tax-and-spend candidate, while Lynch hammers Benson's ethics.
The race, one of six competitive governors races out of 11 across the country, falls in the shadow of the highly charged presidential contest here. New Hampshire is considered a tossup, with President Bush and Senator John Kerry deadlocked in the polls. Bush won the state in 2000 by a little more than 7,000 votes.
Benson cites the presidential race as a primary reason for his teetering poll numbers.
''Because it's such an important race, it has captured more imaginations," Benson said in an interview this week. ''Without it, we could get a message out more easily and would be able to engage more people in my race."
Lynch says the presidential contest has not affected the governor's race, insisting that Benson has lost voter faith because of high personnel turnover, a heavy-handed governing style, and questions about his judgment.
In one episode, a Benson appointee, Linda Pepin, was found to have improperly received thousands of dollars in insurance contract fees. In another, Benson scrambled to explain his refusal to disclose the backgrounds and responsibilities of some private citizens he has appointed to key government positions. Benson said he did not have to disclose the information because he was paying the workers out of his own pocket, a move critics say amounts to a shadow government.
Questions have also arisen around the resignation of New Hampshire attorney general Peter Heed, who was accused of inappropriately touching a state employee at a conference on domestic violence. A probe cleared Heed of criminal wrongdoing, but found that Benson's safety commissioner had improperly interfered in the investigation.
''It is the lack of integrity, and the people perceive that," Lynch said in an interview yesterday.
Benson says his critics are upset by changes he has brought to Concord, specifically his efforts to run government like a business. He has created a ''customer service" phone line and kept meetings short by not providing participants with seats.
He defends his style as demanding results for taxpayers. ''What's driving people out of state government is that I am asking people to change and I am a demanding boss," Benson said. ''But as demanding as I am -- I also like to reward people."
The race is very different from two years ago, when the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Mark Fernald, went down to resounding defeat after proposing a state income tax. Voters punished him for the tax proposal. In this year's primary, Democrats rejected a candidate who supported an income tax, said Dean Spiliotes, a politics professor at Saint Anselm College in Manchester.
''The Democrats are going back to what was a workable model for them," said Spiliotes, referring to former Governor Jeanne Shaheen's successful six-year run. She opposed a state income tax.
That a Republican governor in this state, once considered a Republican stronghold, could face potential defeat reflects changing demographics. Nearly 38 percent of the state's voters are registered as independents, a result attributed to an influx of out-of-staters who tend to be moderate on social issues and who oppose new taxes. Another 34 percent are registered Republican, and 28 percent are Democrats.
To be sure, the entire New Hampshire congressional delegation remains Republican, and their four seats appear safe this election cycle, But Clinton carried the state twice, in 1992 and 1996. And Al Gore came close in 2000.
The two gubernatorial candidates, who will meet in their final debate tonight, cut similar profiles.
Benson, 50, and Lynch, 51 are wealthy businessmen, and both were political neophytes until seeking the state's highest office. Lynch has spent $1.3 million of his own money on the contest, Benson $1.4 million. In his first run for office in 2002, Benson spent about $12 million of his own, topping previous totals.
Lynch hails from Waltham and was educated at Harvard Business School and Georgetown University Law Center; Benson was raised in New Jersey and educated at Babson College in Wellesley and Syracuse University. Both men made fortunes while living in New Hampshire: Benson as cofounder of Cabletron Systems, Lynch as head of Knoll Inc., a furniture maker.
Both like to talk about the ''New Hampshire way." And yet, observers say, the two have successfully cast the race in starkly different terms.
''They have two competing frames on the election: Benson says it's about Lynch proposing all these things he can't do without raising taxes, Lynch saying this is all about ethics and morality and someone who can actually work with legislators," Spiliotes said.
For Charles Pieroni, a printing company owner in Rochester, though, the differences are not clear enough. ''Lynch sounds pretty good," Pieroni said after hearing Lynch speak at the rotary lunch yesterday. ''Like maybe he's got a story to tell." Benson, he said, seems ''slippery."