MANCHESTER N.H. (Reuters) - In the final debate before next week’s New Hampshire U.S. Senate primary, Scott Brown listened politely to his two Republican challengers, even as his campaign has for months focused on defeating the Democratic incumbent, Jeanne Shaheen, in November.
Brown is not alone in his confidence. Senator John McCain, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush are among the big-name Republicans who have thrown their weight behind Brown, seeing him as the party’s best bet to take back the seat.
A victory by the 54-year-old Brown, a lawyer who recently resigned his post as a National Guard colonel after three decades of service, could help the party win back control of the Senate, where Democrats hold a 53-45 majority, with two seats held by independents.
Since announcing his candidacy six months ago, Brown has trained his sights on Shaheen, working to tie her to President Barack Obama, whose popularity in New Hampshire has waned since he carried the state in the 2012 general election.
“I feel like this country’s on fire right now,” Brown said at Thursday’s debate at WMUR-TV in Manchester. “The president isn’t up for re-election, but guess what? His No. 1 foot soldier is, and that’s Jeanne Shaheen.”
Brown’s national support, which exasperated his main primary rivals, former U.S. Senator Bob Smith and former state Senator Jim Rubens, is based largely on his record of surprising Democrats.
Until five years ago he was a little-known Massachusetts state representative who trained for triathlons in his spare time. But in early 2010 he stunned Massachusetts liberals by beating the state’s attorney general, Martha Coakley, to claim the U.S. Senate seat held for half a century by Edward M. Kennedy.
After losing his 2012 re-election bid to Elizabeth Warren, Brown late last year moved north to the state where he grew up, with an eye on running again.
Now Brown, a married man with two adult daughters, could upset New England Democrats a second time. A recent WMUR/University of New Hampshire poll showed him in a statistical dead heat with Shaheen, with the incumbent holding the support of 46 percent of likely voters and the challenger having 44 percent, within the poll’s 4-percentage-point margin of error.
Over the past four decades just three of nine U.S. senators elected by New Hampshire voters have been Democrats, though its current and former governor are Democrats.
Brown, a former part-time model who retains the chiseled features that prompted Cosmopolitan magazine to name him “America’s Sexiest Man” in 1982, hopes the Republican Party’s track record in New Hampshire will help nudge him to victory.
‘CANNOT BE COUNTED OUT’
Shaheen’s campaign has also attracted heavyweights. Vice President Joe Biden appeared with her Wednesday at a Portsmouth shipyard that works on Navy contracts, telling workers Shaheen was a powerful voice in Washington for their jobs.
Early on, Shaheen tried to paint Brown as an interloper from out of state, but Brown supporters said his youth in the state undercut that argument.
“Brown is viable, and he cannot be counted out. But she is a popular incumbent,” said Jeffrey Berry, a professor of political science at Tufts University in Massachusetts.
“The basic dynamic of the election right now is whether Jeanne Shaheen is responsible for the Obama administration,” he said. “So far, independents in New Hampshire have not bought that argument. But they may.”
Even supporters of Brown’s rivals acknowledged that his national profile, built on an unexpected win in an off-cycle election and bolstered by a stint as a Fox News commentator, has boosted his chances. Based on filings with the Federal Election Commission, Brown had raised almost $3.7 million by late last month, more than triple that raised by Rubens and Smith combined.
Jan Glassman, a 65-year-old retiree who splits her time between New Hampshire and Florida, said viability is a big reason why she supports Brown.
“I think that he can beat Jeanne Shaheen, which is important,” she said, adding that Brown’s recent return from out of state didn’t bother her. “He has gone out and listened, and I think he will represent all the people of New Hampshire. Shaheen is really more about listening to Obama.”
Standing across the street from Glassman and wearing a Rubens T-shirt, 78-year-old Jorge Mesa-Tejada, also retired, said that if Brown wins the primary, he will vote for him in November.
“I don’t like Scott Brown. I don’t think he is up to the job, but the most important thing is to have a Republican,” he said.
Additional reporting by Ted Siefer; Editing by Frank McGurty and Douglas Royalty