As Newt Gingrich tries to grow his support among New Hampshire’s conservative leaders, two of the Republican presidential candidate’s top supporters have a unique distinction – they backed Democrats in previous races.
Bob Smith and Bernie Streeter both decided to endorse Gingrich’s presidential bid several weeks ago. They moved into the spotlight last week, as they took a public role defending the former House speaker against attacks from former New Hampshire Governor John H. Sununu, a surrogate for rival Mitt Romney.
Gingrich spokesman Mattheau LeDuc said there’s no significance to the fact that Smith and Streeter each backed a Democrat. Both say they are committed Republicans.
“They’re just people who come out (for Gingrich), and everybody’s past is colored a little differently,’’ LeDuc said.
Streeter, a former Nashua mayor and a long-time executive councilor, serves on Gingrich’s state advisory committee, and said he first got to know Gingrich at a charity fund-raiser in March.
“I like the way he’s handled himself in the campaign. He hasn’t switched positions, hasn’t flip-flopped,’’ Streeter said. “Frankly, I don’t like the way Romney’s attack dogs, particularly Governor Sununu, have been publicly attacking Gingrich.’’
Streeter, who is also supporting the 2012 Republican gubernatorial campaign of Ovide Lamontagne, said he stands by his decision to back Democratic Governor John Lynch in 2010, as part of a coalition of pro-Lynch Republicans.
“Governor Lynch was good to Nashua, good to me politically,’’ Streeter said. “It was the first time in my political life I endorsed a Democrat. I’m not backing down from that for one minute.’’
Smith has a more colorful history.
He represented New Hampshire as a Republican in the US House and the US Senate from 1985 to 2003. He briefly left the party in 1999 for a short-lived presidential bid as an independent. He lost his Senate seat in a primary challenge from Republican John E. Sununu – son of the former governor.
In 2004, Smith wrote a letter backing Senator John Kerry, a Democrat, in his presidential bid against President George W. Bush, Republican.
Smith today says he acted out of anger that Bush reneged on a commitment to support him in his race against Sununu. He says backing Kerry was a mistake.
“I apologized for it,’’ Smith said. “It was a stupid mistake. It was not something I was proud of. I was human, I got angry.’’
Smith said he did no work for Kerry.
Smith retired to Florida and ran for Senate unsuccessfully from there but came back to New Hampshire after Thanksgiving. He still has a home in the state and plans to stay in New Hampshire through the primary as a volunteer for Gingrich.
The men met when Smith was a freshman in Congress in 1985.
“I think that Newt is an outsider with insider knowledge, which makes him dangerous to the establishment,’’ Smith says. “He’s an anti-establishment candidate with the ideas of the Tea Party and other groups, with the knowledge to be able to accomplish some of the goals the outsiders want.’’
Gingrich also picked up support last week from former New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Jack Kimball, a former volunteer for Herman Cain, who dropped out of the race.
Gingrich will be campaigning today in New Hampshire, holding two town hall meetings, a meet-and-greet, and a one-on-one debate with former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman.
He remains in second place in the polls here, behind Romney, the former governor of neighboring Massachusetts, but leads in the other early voting states.