John Sununu
Jim Cole  /  AP
Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H. was the first Republican in Congress to urge that President Bush fire Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 3/20/2007 11:48:57 AM ET 2007-03-20T15:48:57

Last November’s election massacre of Republicans in New Hampshire was not only satisfying for Democrats but also suggested they should be able to oust Republican Sen. John Sununu in 2008.

Democrats gained control of both houses of the state legislature, won both of the state’s U.S. House seats, and propelled Democratic governor John Lynch to reelection with 74 percent of the vote.

It might seem as if all the Democrats need to do now is decide who’ll have the honor of ushering Sununu into premature retirement.

Sununu, who last week urged President Bush to fire Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, is working overtime to voice his exasperation with the Bush administration. And this may help him in his re-election bid by establishing his bona fides as an independent.

Sununu's litany of criticism
Sununu came off the Senate floor repeatedly during last Thursday’s roll call votes on Iraq policy to give reporters his litany of criticism of Bush and Gonzales: “The handling of national security letters (akin to administrative search warrants), the shifting administration explanations on the terrorist surveillance program, the lack of supervision and communication as they review the dismissal of U.S. attorneys.”

Sununu has also spoken out against Bush policy and in support of a Democratic-led effort to allow detainees held at Guantanamo Navy Base to seek a writ of habeas corpus in federal court to challenge their detention. Granting such a right to the detainees, he argued, was important because “it speaks to people around the world as to what kind of a society we are and what principles we hold to be dearest.”

Last year Congress passed the Military Commissions Act, for which Sununu voted, which bars detainees from going to court to challenge their detention.

Despite his recent high-profile clashes with Bush, Sununu also voted in support of the president’s positions 96 percent of the time in 2004 and 95 percent of the time in 2003, according to the non-partisan Congressional Quarterly analyses.

And last week he supported the president by voting against the Democratic resolution which would have ordered Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq within four months.

“We shouldn’t be committing additional troops until the Iraqi government has done more to fulfill commitments they’ve made…. We certainly shouldn’t have U.S. troops taking the lead dealing with sectarian violence,” he told reporters right before voting against the Democratic resolution.

A mistake to announce exit date
But he added, “Announcing to al Qaida members or Sunni insurgents the exact day that you’re going to begin withdrawing and the day that you’re going to complete withdrawing is irresponsible. We shouldn’t be sending that information to our enemies.”

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Sununu’s re-election bid is important not only for New Hampshire but because, if all the breaks go the Democrats’ way, as most of them did in 2006, they can get within striking distance of 60 seats in the Senate, enough to defeat Republican filibusters.

Who’d be the strongest candidate against Sununu?

The two Democrats in the race so far are unsuccessful 2002 House candidate Katrina Swett and Portsmouth, N.H. Mayor Steve Marchand.

Unlike Swett, who lost her House race in 2002 despite far outspending her opponent, Marchand has in fact won elections as city councilman and mayor of a city of some 20,000 residents.

Marchand is 33 years old, brisk, confident, and can take credit for helping a curb tax increase in his city.

He’s at home discussing municipal management: “We had one-and-a-half feet of snow on Valentine’s day. We had sand and salt trucks out. The big challenge is manpower and fatigue.”

But is he ready to take the leap from managing snowstorms to dealing with Guantanamo detainees and Iranian nuclear weapons?

Passion for federal issues
“My passion comes from federal issues,” he said in an interview in a coffee shop in downtown Portsmouth. He cited “my work with the Concord Coalition (a group that urges deficit reduction and control of fed spend), working exclusively on federal issues, my work with AARP and SEIU (Service Employees International Union), where a lot of my passion was on federal issues.”

Marchand headed the Concord Coalition branch in New England and New York.

Marchand said he supports withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq over the next two years but warns that there won’t necessarily be a “peace dividend because the war on terror doesn’t end just because we withdraw from Iraq.”

He envisions American experts in agriculture, energy and other fields working in Iraq even after U.S. troops leave.

But wouldn’t those experts be kidnapped, tortured, and murdered if U.S. troops aren't there to protect them?

Marchand replied, “As you slowly draw down the number of troops, you need to have an exchange of knowledge and what I would describe as showing that the best of America is not simply providing military and physical security, but providing knowledge exchange, technology exchange, providing economic support….”

Swett makes the case she's stronger
“I’m the stronger candidate,” Swett said in an interview in Manchester. “I have an enormous wealth of experience. I bring the tested experience in the political trenches in this race to defeat John Sununu…. This is going to be a race that will cost between $6 million and $7 million – I anticipate, if necessary, spending $3 million in the primary.”

She implied Marchand couldn’t raise as much money as she could.

Swett, the mother of seven children, served as former deputy counsel to the Senate subcommittee on criminal justice and was director of the graduate program in public policy at New England College.

She is also well-connected as the daughter of Rep. Tom Lantos, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Foreign Relations Committee, and as the wife of Dick Swett, who served two terms in the House from 1991 to 1995.

She says she is better known in New Hampshire than Marchand: “People on weekly basis come up to me and say, ‘you know, when your husband was in office, he helped my family solve a problem with the government.’”

A Lieberman liability?
Some New Hampshire Democrats say Swett’s role as national co-chair of Sen. Joe Lieberman’s 2004 presidential campaign will be a burden for her, since those on the Left of the party, such as Moveon.org and the Daily Kos web site, loathe Lieberman.

But Swett said her support for Lieberman won’t be a problem in the primary.

“Joe has been a leading national Democrat for many years with a very progressive record on a wide range of issues. While some Democrats were dismayed by his decision to run as an Independent following the Connecticut primary, no less a progressive Democrat than Barack Obama chose to support his candidacy,” she said.

Obama supported Lieberman until Ned Lamont won the Democratic primary; the day after Lamont's primary win, Obama’s political action committee sent a $5,000 check to Lamont’s campaign, but some Lamont fans wished Obama had done more to help Lamont, who ended up losing in November to Lieberman by ten points.

For Swett, the senator at issue in 2008 will be Sununu, not Lieberman.

“The contrast will be between Katrina Swett who calls a spade a spade in terms of the appalling and tragic mismanagement of this whole effort by the administration and John Sununu who will have to defend not only his own votes but the conduct of the Bush administration for eight years,” she said.

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