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Ex-Sen. Bob Smith Is Back, But Have N.H. Voters Noticed?

Ex-Sen. Bob Smith Is Back, But Have N.H. Voters Noticed?

By Scott Conroy - July 11, 2014

GOFFSTOWN, N.H. -- Two months before the New Hampshire Republican Senate primary, Bob Smith was scrutinizing a shopping cart full of watermelons near the checkout line at Sully’s Market. 

"That's a ripe melon," the former two-term U.S. senator said as he flicked one of the green fruits with his thumb and forefinger. 

Next, Smith turned his attention to a less desirable specimen in the cart and replicated the ripeness test for the benefit of state Rep. John Hikel, a local supporter who was escorting the candidate on what had been billed as a canvass of downtown Goffstown but turned into an aimless afternoon stroll. 

“Now, that one’s not ripe,” Smith said. “Listen. Hear that?” 

Hikel tilted his head to better take in the distinctive note that this particular watermelon emitted.  

“Yeah, that sounds more solid,” he offered. 

“We used to grow ’em,” Smith continued, reflecting on his younger days on a farm near Trenton, N.J. “I worked for a guy who grew those.” 

Smith -- who is running in a three-way Republican primary to regain the seat that he lost a dozen years ago -- had come to Sully’s for the ostensible purpose of earning votes. But the 73-year-old long shot (former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown is the GOP frontrunner) preferred to let the shoppers come to him.

“I don’t seek them out; they seek me out,” he said.  

Playing hard to get is not typically a recipe for success for a candidate who needs all the attention he can get.  But sure enough, soon after the watermelon discourse came to an end, a man in a T-shirt and shorts approached the challenger.

“Mr. Smith?” 

“Yes, sir.” 

“You have my vote,” the man said. 

Smith’s expression lit up. “You better leave real fast before you change your mind,” he said with a laugh. 

“No, I’ve been with you for a while,” the man replied. 

“Don’t forget, September 9th!” 

And with that, Smith was back to wandering around the store -- not appearing particularly eager to engage with voters, though unflinchingly friendly with the few with whom he did interact.   

This eccentric manner of voter outreach perhaps befits Smith’s unlikely attempt at a political reemergence.  After previously announcing that he would not run, the onetime major player in New Hampshire Republican politics changed his mind last December and entered the race to unseat incumbent Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.  

It was only the latest wrinkle in the eclectic political biography of a man who was first elected to the state’s 1st District U.S. House seat three decades ago and who later served a dozen years in the U.S. Senate. 

After failing to gain traction in his abbreviated 1999 quest for the Republican presidential nomination, Smith announced that he was leaving the party and promptly mounted a far-fetched White House run as a U.S. Taxpayers Party candidate.  

That campaign and a subsequent independent presidential bid both were short-lived, and Smith temporarily returned his focus to New Hampshire.

But the damage to his reputation in the state had been done.  

Smith went on to lose his bid for a third Senate term in the GOP primary to then U.S. Rep. John Sununu in 2002, and a subsequent move to rebuild his political career in Florida failed when he couldn’t gain any traction in his bids for the Republican Senate nomination in 2004 and 2010. 

Smith has since returned -- for the time being, at least -- to his home in the New Hampshire Lakes Region town of Tuftonboro, where he counts Mitt Romney, a resident of nearby Wolfeboro, among his neighbors.

But it was a letter that he penned while still living in the Sunshine State the week before Election Day 2004 that remains the strangest bullet point in the longtime conservative stalwart’s political resume. 

Between sips of Dunkin Donuts coffee inside his spartan campaign office, Smith explained that his decision to write the infamous letter, which endorsed John Kerry over George W. Bush for president, was motivated by spite.  

Smith explained that at the time, he had not gotten over Bush’s reneging on a promise to back him in his 2002 primary race against Sununu, and so he lashed out.  

“That was something I did in anger,” Smith said of the endorsement letter, noting that he has since apologized for it. “As soon as I dropped it in the mailbox, I knew it was a mistake.” 

Notwithstanding that particular episode, Smith’s deeply conservative voting record does make for a clear contrast with the more moderate Brown on some key issues, including gun control and abortion.  

And Smith’s edge among grassroots Republican activists in the state has become evident, especially after conservative firebrand Karen Testerman dropped out of the race and endorsed him last month. 

In a straw poll conducted by the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers last week, Smith easily defeated Brown and a third GOP contender, former state Sen. Jim Rubens. 

But Smith’s footprint among the wider New Hampshire Republican electorate remains much more difficult to discern in a state where the political landscape has shifted dramatically over the last decade.  

And in a poll of a hypothetical general election matchup conducted by WMUR this week, Smith trailed Shaheen by a 23-point margin (57 percent to 34 percent) -- almost double the 12-point deficit that Brown faced against the incumbent in the same survey.  

Outside of the state, the race has for months been portrayed widely as an inevitable Shaheen vs. Brown showdown. Being regarded as an afterthought clearly has miffed Smith, who frequently points to Eric Cantor’s shocking defeat last month as reason to believe that the experts and polls have it all wrong once again. 

As he sat for a morning-drive-time radio interview with Rich Girard of Manchester’s “the Girard at Large” show, the 6-foot-6 former lawmaker leaned into the microphone and gesticulated with his hands for emphasis as he sought to emphasize his connection to the state he represented for two decades in Washington.  

In fact, Smith could almost pass as New Hampshire’s unofficial mascot. With his craggy, sloping nose and jutting chin, in profile he bears resemblance to the Old Man of the Mountain -- the iconic Granite State rock formation that crumbled a year after Smith was voted out of office (but which remains immortalized on the state’s license plates). 

“This is Bob Smith here -- I know how to run campaigns,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for 20 years in this state. And I’ll quote Bush here: I love it when they don’t take me seriously or underestimate me. That’s fine with me.” 

Smith wants New Hampshire Republicans to remember the good old days. For example, the accumulated seniority he would regain if he were to return to the upper chamber is one of his selling points.  

And he is not particularly deferential to the new guard in the state’s GOP politics.  

“I don’t know if Sen. Ayotte’s got the message yet, but I’ll be the senior senator after I defeat Shaheen -- not Kelly Ayotte,” he said.  

Despite the lack of discernible momentum, Smith said that his campaign was “lit up, and people know it,” adding that his “sources” told him that the Brown campaign has poor internal poll numbers that are causing them concern. 

He also promised “exciting news” to offer next week, which he couldn’t yet divulge.  

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Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at sconroy@realclearpolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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