CLAREMONT, New Hampshire (Reuters) - At home in New Hampshire, the land of Yankee skepticism, congressman Charlie Bass was being asked to explain his support for the new Republican budget.
“What I have heard is that it would end Medicare as we know it,” a nurse from Charlestown, New Hampshire, told Bass during a town hall meeting last week, holding a printout of an e-mail in her hand.
“Who is the author of that thing you’re reading?” Bass asked.
It came from two Washington, D.C., think tanks, she said.
“It’s a complete fabrication,” Bass replied, as the two began to speak over one another. “That’s political dogma.”
The scene in Claremont -- an old mill town where a 19th-century opera house is a reminder of a more prosperous past -- is typical of those in communities across the nation, as members of Congress on a two-week spring break hear their constituents’ concerns and try to explain their actions in Washington.
At a time of high unemployment and home foreclosure rates, frustration with Congress and rising anxiety over how to deal with the national debt without gutting programs such as Medicare health insurance for the elderly and the Social Security retirement program, such meetings aren’t always comfortable for lawmakers.
But they can offer a vivid picture of voters’ feelings, as Republicans and Democrats start gearing up in earnest for presidential and congressional elections on November 6.
In 2010, similar gatherings packed with conservatives grew ugly over President Barack Obama’s healthcare overhaul, providing a sign of the persistence of the emerging conservative Tea Party movement and foretelling the shellacking that awaited Democrats in the fall elections.
This year, the issue of the moment is Republicans’ efforts to trim the national debt, starting with a budget plan put forward by Representative Paul Ryan of Wisconsin.
Ryan and Mitt Romney, the likely Republican presidential nominee, say the plan -- which recently passed the Republican-led House of Representatives on a party-line vote - is a first step toward curbing the runaway costs of a range of government initiatives, including Medicare.
Obama called the plan “social Darwinism,” saying it would make too-drastic cuts that would disproportionately affect lower-income Americans giving preference to the wealthy.
In New Hampshire and Illinois last week, voters made clear that they were worried about the potential impact of a plan such as Ryan’s -- but that they were also alarmed by rising government spending and increasingly annoyed by dysfunction in Washington.
“Our legislature doesn’t know how to fix things, they know how to run for office. They know how to campaign,” said Carol Fischer of Kane County, Illinois. She described herself as a moderate Republican who, despite her frustration, probably would stick with Republican Representative Judy Biggert in the November election, when Biggert will face Democrat Bill Foster.
Few races offer more fertile ground for testing the strength of Obama and his presumed opponent, Romney, than Bass’ district in New Hampshire.
While Romney and Obama often play to their party’s wings, it is in centrist places such as New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District that their parties’ arguments will see their stiffest tests.
The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee is eagerly watching Bass, a Republican representing a Democratic-leaning district, hoping his seat will be overtaken by their party. The son of a congressman and grandson of a governor, Bass has hitched his star to Romney. He told a gathering of businessmen recently that he would be in big trouble without the former Massachusetts governor at the top of the ticket.
Bass’ Democratic opponent, lawyer and non-profit fundraiser Ann Kuster, was Obama’s state co-chairwoman in 2008. Bass beat Kuster by 3,551 votes in 2010, a thin margin in a fat year for Republicans.
“It’s a district that takes its politics pretty seriously,” said Tom Rath, a New Hampshire adviser to Romney, whose law firm hired Kuster. Today, she rents office space from the firm.
Judging by the questions that Bass handled on Tuesday, the Republican budget proposal will be central to the campaign. But other issues, such as rising gas prices, were on voters’ minds, too.
In Claremont, many said that they were worried that Bass wanted to lower taxes on the wealthy. They worried about his association not with Romney but with Ryan, the author of the Republican budget.
Bass voted for Ryan’s budget plan, which has helped to make Ryan a Republican hero, and target for Democratic criticism.
At one point during the Claremont meeting, Bass seemed uncomfortable with Ryan’s prominence. When asked about the Ryan budget, Bass said, “I hate to call it that. It’s the Republican budget in Congress.”
DEBATING GOVERNMENT‘S ROLE
As gas prices rise, Bass will trumpet his work to increase energy efficiency. Last Wednesday, he put on a hard hat and peered into a 2,000-degree fire to talk about energy conservation with the owner of Concord Steam Corp. in the state capital.
Bass is so well-known in his district that voters call him “Uncle Charlie.”
The 60-year-old first ran for office 32 years ago. His politics have been shaped by the area’s middle-of-the-road ways. He reminded voters on Tuesday that he has supported Obama’s plans to shrink the military’s presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. He is a member of the dwindling group of Republicans who describe themselves as “pro-choice” on abortion.
Such flexibility made one Romney adviser in New Hampshire nervous about the presidential candidate embracing the congressman’s support.
“Conservatives don’t trust Charlie,” adviser Jim Merrill wrote in an internal memo, obtained by National Journal in November. They worry “he’ll vote to raise taxes,” Merrill said.
Many of the 40 people who came to speak with Bass came from towns once powered by mills and factories long since shuttered.
Larry Converse, 69, a Democrat from Claremont said he was worried about losing his Medicare coverage. Converse once worked in the polishing department of the Sturm, Ruger & Co. gun maker and said that government assistance had helped to keep his family together.
“If it weren’t for the federal government, we wouldn’t have survived,” Converse said. “There were five kids. We depended on surplus food. That is the only thing that kept us going.”
Four years ago, Frank Delorier, 73, of nearby Newport, moved out of his house and into a mobile home.
“If I had a family today, I couldn’t afford it,” said the one-time trucker and oil-field worker.
(This story corrects spelling of Ann Kuster’s first name in paragraph 18)
Additional reporting by Eric Johnson; Editing by David Lindsey and Christopher Wilson