GOP Senate candidates court conservative support in final debate before New Hampshire primary

By David Espo, AP
Thursday, September 9, 2010

NH GOP Senate candidates in final primary debate

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Rivals for New Hampshire’s Republican Senate nomination vied for the support of conservative voters Thursday night in a polite debate that yielded agreement on federal spending cuts, a reduction in size of the government and repeal of the health care law that President Barack Obama won from Congress.

With the candidates on their best behavior, the few disagreements to emerge were muted.

Kelly Ayotte (pronounced AY’-aht), the former attorney general who leads in the preprimary polls, said she was “proud to have the support” of major anti-abortion groups such as the National Right to Life Committee and Susan B. Anthony List. She said she opposed abortion except in cases involving incest, rape or when the life of the mother is threatened.

Ovid Lamontagne, her closest pursuer in the polls, countered a few moments later that he was “the only candidate in the race for the U.S. Senate who is 100 percent pro-life,” and the only one who favors a constitutional amendment to ban all abortions.

Among the other leading contenders, businessman Bill Binnie said he favors abortion rights, while businessman Jim Bender and independent insurance agent Dennis Lamare said the federal government should not become involved in the issue.

The debate unfolded five days before the Sept. 14 primary. The winner of the contest will face Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes in November for the seat held by retiring Republican Sen. Judd Gregg.

The GOP rivals have debated numerous times in the past, and few significant differences on economic or national security issues have emerged over the course of a campaign punctuated by attack ads.

In a one-hour debate at Saint Anselm College, all bashed the health care law that Congress passed, expressed sympathy with an Arizona state law that cracked down on illegal immigration and said if elected, they would go to Washington and work to revive the economy.

“I want to go to the Senate to cut spending, lower taxes and get people to work in this country,” said Ayotte, a first-time candidate who is supported by the Republican Party establishment as well as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Lamontagne has the support of local tea party activists and said early in the debate it was “important to distinguish among the candidates where we stand on the issues.” As an underfunded candidate hoping for a late surge, he presumably could have benefited most from a debate on statewide television that exposed stark differences, but there were few opportunities to highlight any.

Apart from abortion, Ayotte was the only candidate to say she would have voted to confirm Justice Sonia Sotomayor to her seat on the Supreme Court. She said she disagreed with Sotomayor’s political philosophy, but added, “at least she had a record we could look at and evaluate.”

Ayotte’s position on the Sotomayor nomination stands out in a campaign aimed at winning the support of conservatives, and while the question was not asked, she was at pains to say she would have opposed Justice Elena Kagan’s nomination.

Ayotte’s rivals said Sotomayor would not have had their vote, and Lamontagne said pointedly that the issue was a difference between himself and the front-runner. He did not elaborate, except to say that when it comes to deciding how to vote on nominations, “my litmus test is fidelity to the law.”

The race has drawn intense interest within both political parties nationally.

Republican strategists say Ayotte would be the party’s strongest candidate in the fall, and Democrats agree.

Ayotte has been the front-runner from the start, but Binnie ran second in the polls for weeks after launching a multimillion-dollar ad campaign. His support has ebbed recently following an outbreak of negative ads, and in recent days he has emphasized his support for abortion rights and appealed to independents to carry him to victory.

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