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Congressional races may make N.H. swing state

Close contests draw resources of both parties

NASHUA -- Both House seats in New Hampshire -- held by Republicans Charlie Bass and Jeb Bradley -- are emerging as key swing districts in Tuesday's election, new polls suggest.

In recent weeks, the national parties have poured $1.7 million into the race between Bass and challenger Paul Hodes, in which a University of New Hampshire poll released yesterday showed Hodes with an 8-point lead. The poll also showed Democratic challenger Carol Shea-Porter within striking distance of Bradley, who led by 5 points.

Analysts say a defeat of Bass or Bradley, coming two years after the election of a popular Democratic governor and victory for a Democratic presidential candidate, would mark a shift in New Hampshire .

Crusty, frugal New Hampshire has long been thought of as Republican territory . Now, it may join its heavily Democratic New England neighbors.

"If one is defeated it will be a symptom of the national mood against Republicans and of the undeniable demographic changes in the state," said University of New Hampshire pollster Andy Smith. "This year's election could be for Democrats in New Hampshire what the 1994 election was for Republicans in the South."

In addition to drawing money, the races are bringing high-profile visitors. Within the last week Republicans hastily put together events in the state with Senator John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Laura Bush , the president's wife . Today former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani is campaigning with both members of Congress, followed by an event tomorrow with New York Governor George E. Pataki. On Sunday, Governor Mitt Romney will campaign with Bass at a Lutheran church in Salem.

The Republican National Committee hurriedly opened field offices in Nashua and Manchester, the state's two largest cities, where the Republican incumbents appear vulnerable, according to internal polling.

All of this activity is in reaction to a series of polls suggesting the Bass-Hodes race is one of 25 around the country judged too close to call. Two years ago, Bass defeated Hodes by 20 points.

Hodes has been creeping up in the polls since the summer, when he moved within 10 points in a UNH survey. Yesterday's poll was the first time since 1994 that a UNH poll has had a Democrat leading Bass.

Within the last month, two polls by the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee showed the race tied. Two polls by the Bass campaign had Hodes up by 9 points in one, and Bass up by 3 in the other. Another poll, released Monday by Democratic-learning Majority Watch, showed Hodes up by 3 points.

In the race between Bradley and Shea-Porter in the First District, the challenger said her message, not money, has driven her surge.

"I have always been an optimist in thinking that people care about the issues, and they are starting to really pay attention," Shea-Porter said in an interview yesterday after the UNH poll was released.

The election comes at a critical time here for both parties. New Hampshire is among the fastest-growing states in the nation, with most of the newcomers arriving from Massachusetts. The state has voted for a Democrat for governor in four of the last five elections, and a Democrat for president three out of the last four times.

In an interview, Bass denied the notion that he is in a fight for his political life, or that his party is. "The pundits always say about this time [that] this race is going to be close, and I ignore all that stuff because it's happened every two years now since 1996," said Bass, who is seeking his seventh term.

Few things have frustrated New Hampshire Democrats more than the fact that, with each election, Bass's winning margin has grown larger. Some have labeled him "the invincible Charlie Bass."

Republican National Committee member Tom Rath said he believes that Bass is the perfect Republican for his seat because he is a fiscal conservative who also supports abortion rights and laws that protect the environment.

But Smith, the UNH pollster, said this year's race is not really about Bass or Hodes; it is about President Bush , he said .

In his polling, he said, he found a direct correlation between Bush's approval ratings in the congressional district and Bass's prospects for reelection. It is not surprising, then, that none of Bass's ads say he is Republican and nearly every Hodes ad has a picture of Bass and Bush together.

Bass and his defenders are quick to point out that he is more of an independent than a party loyalist. Bass was the first Republican to call for Tom Delay of Texas to resign as House majority leader.

Bass's district includes the southern, western, and northern parts of New Hampshire. The larger cities in the district include heavily Republican Salem and heavily Democratic Keene and Concord. The key, both sides say, is the district's largest city, Nashua.

"This state and my city are changing," said Bernie Streeter, the Republican mayor of Nashua. "This city used to be Democratic, then very Republican. Now, everyone is independent. And when they say independent it means they are new residents and they basically vote for Democrats."

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