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Dave Solomon has been a reporter or editor for New England news organizations since 1977. He has served as executive editor of both the Portsmouth Herald and the Nashua Telegraph. He joined the reporting staff of the New Hampshire Union Leader in 2012.

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December 07. 2011 9:44PM

John DiStaso's Granite Status: Sununu-led Romney camp war on Gingrich escalates


 
THURSDAY, DEC. 8, UPDATE: MORE ANTI-NEWT ATTACKS. With the first-in-the-nation presidential primary just more than a month away, Mitt Romney's campaign unloaded more attacks on top presidential rival Newt Gingrich Thursday _ and former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu led the way.

While Sununu called Gingrich “self-serving,” “anti-conservative” and questioned his ability to be commander-in-chief, Gingrich refused to take the bait.

“We're going to stay positive,” the former House speaker said in South Carolina. “We're going to stay solution-oriented and talk about what America needs to do. And the only opponent I have is Barack Obama.”

Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond did counter that the Sununu charge that Gingrich is too self-centered and bombastic “is a little ironic, coming from Governor Sununu."

Hammond, ironically, is a former congressional staffer for Sununu's son, John E. Sununu.

Key Gingrich supporters came to Gingrich's defense, but, said former New Hampshire U.S. Sen. Bob Smith, “We have not had personal attacks in this (Gingrich) campaign. Newt has set the standards at the top. It's tempting to go personal, but I don't want to do that.”

Gingrich on Thursday picked up the support of former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman and influential Tea Party/liberty movement leader Jack Kimball, a former Herman Cain supporter, and former Nashua Mayor and Executive Councilor Bernie Streeter, a former Romney backer who referred to Sununu as an “attack dog.”

Sununu initially slapped Gingrich over the controversial 1990 budget agreement in Thursday's New Hampshire Union Leader. Then, later Thursday morning, he joined with former Missouri U.S. Rep. and U.S. Jim Talent in an anti-Gingrich conference call.

Sununu told reporters that when Gingrich earlier this year called U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan's entitlement reform provisions of the Republican budget plan “right-wing social engineering,” it was “an effort of self-aggrandizement” that undercut Ryan and was “the most self-serving, anti-conservative thing one can imagine.”

Sununu said, “What he did to Paul Ryan is just the latest in a pattern of anti-principled actions that really irritated his own leadership and produced 88 percent of the Republicans voting for his reprimand” in 1997.

He said Gingrich's occasional “off-the-cuff” comments are “a reflection of the off-the-cuff thinking that he goes through to deal with the issues and that is not what you want in the commander-in-chief.”

Talent, who served with Gingrich in the House from 1992 until Gingrich left in 1998, noted that Romney backed the Ryan plan. He also charged Gingrich “was not reliable as a leader. He said if Gingrich is the nominee, “this election is going to be about him and that's exactly what the Democrats want.”

Both men reiterated their concerns later in separate interviews with the Union Leader.

Talent said Gingrich “has a lot of good ideas but he also just all too often says outrageous things that seem to come from no place and that spite really crucial parts of the agenda,” while Sununu said, “People wonder why many of those who served with Newt Gingrich are so negative on him and the best example is what he did to Paul Ryan.”

Sununu attributed Gingrich's gains on Romney in recent New Hampshire polling to “an ebb and flow of the campaign.”

Talent told the Union Leader that in the coming weeks, the Romney campaign “is going to be driving a lot of other contrasts.”

In other examples of former House members criticizing Gingrich, New York Rep. Peter King called him “too erratic” and “too self-centered.” Former New York Rep. Susan Molinari said Gingrich “has these visions of grandiosity,” while former U.S. Rep. and U.S. Sen. Tom Coburn said, “I will have difficulty supporting him as President of the United States.”

Also Thursday, the Romney campaign bombarded Gingrich with a series of press releases. Two carried headlines charging that Gingrich “Threw Conservatives Under the Bus,” and asking, “With Friends Like Newt, Who Needs the Left?”

In Manchester, Smith, who has returned to New Hampshire from Florida to help Gingrich, came to Gingrich's defense, but he refused join the battle with Sununu, whose, son, John E. Sununu, ousted Smith in a bitter GOP primary on his way to the U.S. Senate in 2002.

Smith, who served in the House with Gingrich before becoming a senator, said he has been impressed with Gingrich's focus on issues rather than “attacks on others.”

He said with Gingrich running against Obama, “there would be a clear line of demarcation between the left and the right.

“When you sugar all this down, it's all about the establishment versus the conservative,” Smith said. “If Newt had not been in Congress and working on the revolution, the Republicans would still be in the minority. But in doing what he did, by refusing to play the games that the old wolves played in Congress, he rocked the boat, he aggravated people.”

Streeter, who served 15 two-year terms as an Executive Councilor, including the three terms from 1981 to 1987 when Sununu was governor, switched his allegiance from Romney and backed Gingrich, calling Sununu an “attack dog” and saying the former governor's attacks are hurting the GOP.

Streeter, who raised GOP ire by backing Democratic Gov. John Lynch over Republican John Stephen in the 2010 gubernatorial election, said, “John is talking out of both sides of his mouth. He talks about party unity on one side and attacking one of the leading contenders on the other side. You don't strive for unity by attacking someone the way he has been attacking Newt. That bordered on vicious.”

Kimball defeated a Sununu-backed candidate last January in succeeding Sununu as state party chair, only to have many establishment Republicans call for his ouster before he resigned in September.

“Newt has always been a high-road guy,” said Kimball. “He, like Herman Cain, have been consistent in not attacking the other candidates. I don't think Republicans should be attacking Republicans. Let's focus on policy differences and stop this garbage and venom and focus on the dialogue on the issues between the candidates.”

Smith has had his own controversy with the GOP. After briefly running for the GOP nomination for President, he left the party in 1999 feeling that the party was not true to conservative principles and was “bending” to the Democrats. He rejoined later, saying he had never actually changed his party registration.

Two years after he was defeated by the younger Sununu, Smith wrote a letter to Democrat John Kerry in 2004 saying he endorsed him for President.

On Thursday, he said he never truly supported Kerry but was “angry at the Bush administration for subtly supporting Sununu. I'm not proud of that and I did a stupid thing.”

(Union Leader correspondent Kimberly Houghton contributed to this report.)

(The full Dec. 8 Granite Status follows.)

READ HIS LIPS: NO NEWT. As Newt Gingrich passes Mitt Romney in polling nationally and gains on him in New Hampshire, the Romney campaign is becoming more aggressive in its attacks on the former House speaker.

A new CNN/Time/ORC poll Wednesday showed Gingrich now trailing Romney by only 9 percentage points, 26 to 35 percent, in the first-primary state.

The Gingrich camp isn't counter-attacking — at least not yet.

“Newt has gotten to this point of (being in) contention by taking the high road, being positive and focusing on the problems the county is having and listening to the American people,” Gingrich spokesman R.C. Hammond told the Granite Status.

Prominent among those taking aim at Gingrich is former Gov. John H. Sununu, who told us this week that Gingrich's “significant flaws” compared to other candidates have only bolstered his support for Romney.

Sununu's first anti-Gingrich remarks surfaced on Monday in the Wall Street Journal, where he was quoted as saying, “Listen to just about anyone who worked alongside Gingrich and you will hear that he's inconsistent, erratic, untrustworthy and unprincipled.”

In a Tuesday interview with us, Sununu elaborated.

“I've just had a history of difficulty dealing with Mr. Gingrich,” Sununu said, “and it really underscores to me all the things that former members of Congress are saying.”

Sununu said that when he was chief of staff in the George Bush (41) White House and Gingrich was the House Minority Whip (the number 2 Republican in the House), Gingrich “quite often would say one thing on one day and take a completely different position the next day.”

Sununu charged that 21 years ago, Gingrich “reneged” on his approval of the now-infamous (to Republicans) 1990 budget agreement with Democrats that included tax increases. Many believe Bush's reversal of his famous “Read my lips. No new taxes” pledge of 1988 cost him a second term.

Sununu said that as an agreement with the Democratic majority was being reached, “I specifically asked Newt Gingrich if he would support it, and he said, ‘yes.'

“We then went to the President and told him we had” the support of both Gingrich and the chief Senate GOP negotiator Phil Gramm, “and then the White House put out a statement saying that there was an agreement.”

But, Sununu said, “The next day, for whatever reason, and nobody has ever been able to explain it to us, Gingrich decided that he was going to oppose it.

“Twelve hours later, he decided it was to his own benefit to oppose the agreement.”

Had Gingrich initially told the White House he was opposed, Sununu said, “we would have gone back to the negotiating table,” and “continued negotiating from a position of strength.”

He said the White House had assured Gingrich and Gramm “we would not accept any agreement they did not support.”

A senior aide in the Gingrich campaign said Gingrich's position was that he was consistently opposed to new taxes and that he “had said consistently to Sununu and (former Office of Management and Budget Director) Dick Darman that he would not support a net tax increase.”

The aide said that “things were represented to Gingrich in the afternoon that, when checked, turned out not to be accurate. There was a net tax increase, and the Republicans didn't get the things they were told they were going to get.”

Sununu said Gingrich was clearly aware of the tax increases included in the plan when he agreed to it.

The Gingrich aide said Bush's 1988 no-new-taxes pledge had “thrilled” Gingrich, who believed it fueled the Republican enthusiasm that sent Bush to the White House.

But, the aide said, Gingrich was “shocked when the President was forced by the Democrats to back off that commitment in the summer of 1990.”

The Gingrich aide said that the morning the budget agreement was to be announced and the key players gathered in the Cabinet room of the White House, “Gingrich stayed with the Bush 1988 pledge of no new taxes and said, with sadness, that he could not agree to go along with the tax increase. He was the only person in the room to say that.

“When all the rest of them trooped into the Rose Garden, Gingrich walked out the front door,” the aide recalled.

The aide also noted that Gingrich “clearly represented the majority of House Republicans because in the vote, an overwhelming majority voted against the tax increase.”

Sununu said that without Gingrich and his House followers on board, “It led to the Democrats forcing us to strip out some of the good stuff that they didn't like that they had agreed to. They said, ‘If the House Republicans don't agree to it, we don't agree to it.'”

Sununu said that for more than two decades, “I've kept quiet about it. I have not written a book. I haven't attacked anybody.

“I've basically swallowed this, but everybody knows this,” he said.

The Gingrich aide responded, “Did Governor Romney favor the 1990 tax increase? Are we going to have a New Hampshire primary between the ‘no tax increase' Gingrich and the pro-tax increase Romney? Is that the intent of Sununu's comments?”

Sununu cited two other examples of what he said were shifts in positions by Gingrich during the Bush (41) years.

He said that while Bush consistently fought Democratic efforts to attach federal funding of abortion to various pieces of legislation, Gingrich, a self-described pro-life advocate, “at least twice went to Darman and complained that we were drawing a line in the sand on something that wasn't important.”

He recalled one instance in which Gingrich “said to Darman and me that he wished the President fought as strongly for getting rid of the capital gains tax as he fought for getting rid of federal funding for abortions.”

The Gingrich aide responded, “It's true that Newt Gingrich thought economic growth was important. That did not undermine his 100 percent support for all efforts to cut off federal funding of abortion. He just indicated it would be good to have a growing economy with jobs. Both were important.”

Sununu also said that Bush fought hard to allow federal funding for child care for working mothers in church-based programs, as promoted by former Rep. Jack Kemp.

He said Gingrich at first supported it, but then told the White House it should not be a priority.

“It was important to the conservative religious community and so we fought and we finally won it,” Sununu said, “but Gingrich abandoned us.”

The Gingrich aide said he could not recall the specifics of that incident and had no comment.

In the end, both men had controversial conclusions to their careers in the nation's capital.

Sununu resigned as chief of staff in 1991 after disclosures that he used military aircraft for personal and political trips.

Gingrich resigned from the House in 1998 after the House reprimanded him in a bipartisan vote the prior year for using tax-deductible money for political purposes.

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HIGH-POWERED HELP. On the State House front, the Status has learned that the effort to repeal the state's same-sex marriage law has picked up two high-powered strategists.

Michael Dennehy has signed on as a lobbyist for the National Organization of Marriage, while Patrick Hynes' July Fourth Forum PAC is also getting deeply involved.

“It's something I've wanted to get involved in for a while now,” Hynes told us. ““We're going to raise money and build a coalition of center-right groups and other politically interested groups to educate legislators and the public.”

The effort will include direct mail and broadcast advertising, he said.

Hynes said he is convinced that the GOP-dominated 2010 election illustrated that “the public in this state did not acquiesce to that law.”

He noted that the House Judiciary Committee recommended passage of a repeal bill recently and predicted that the House will pass it, perhaps in January.

“It will be a battle in the Senate and a function of making people's voices heard,” Hynes said.

Working with Dennehy and Hynes will be volunteer Jason Rose.

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DEMS NOT STANDING BY. Back on the presidential front, with attention focused on the GOP race, the Democrats are gearing up for the final five weeks leading to the first-in-the-nation primary.

President Barack Obama's Organizing for America emailed thousands of supporters on Tuesday night asking for volunteers.

“There's a lot to do between now and the primary on January 10th,” the email from OFA New Hampshire director Pete Kavanaugh says. “We're going to be spending the next five weeks organizing — and we need all hands on deck.”

Also, Corey Booker, the popular mayor of Newark, N.J., who is being mentioned as a possible 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, will be a surrogate for Obama at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics tomorrow at 10 a.m., during an event with OFA and the Saint Anselm College Democrats.

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10 MORE FOR MITT. Romney today will announce the support of 10 more New Hampshire House members, led by Deputy Majority Leader Shawn Jasper, who joins Majority Leader D.J. Bettencourt. Speaker Bill O'Brien remains uncommitted in the primary.

Also backing Romney today will be Republican Reps. Betsy McKinney of Londonderry, Frank Tilton and Donald Flanders of Laconia, Jim Devine of Sandown, Dennis Reed of Franklin, Jane Johnson and John Byrnes of Swanzey, Chris Christensen of Merrimack and Larry Emerton of Goffstown.

Jasper cited Romney's “executive experience” and said he is running “the type of traditional New Hampshire campaign that Granite Staters expect from presidential candidates.”

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MORE MITT NEWS. As he steps up his campaign in New Hampshire, Romney has a new television ad ready to air on Friday.

Entitled “Leader,” the 30-second spot shows Romney speaking at the Nov. 9 CNBC debate as photos of him with his wife, Ann, and children are shown.

Romney says, “I think people understand that I'm a man of steadiness and constancy. I don't think you're going to find somebody who has more of those attributes than I do.

“I've been married to the same woman for 25 – excuse me, I'll get in trouble – for 42 years. I've been in the same church my entire life. I worked at one company, Bain, for 25 years. And I left that to go off and help save the Olympic Games.

“If I'm President of the United States, I will be true to my family, to my faith, and to our country, and I will never apologize for the United States of America.”

As the ground game picks up, mailers are about to go out that will be tailored to specific regions of the state. All “zones” will feature U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, while each zone will feature a local officeholder who has endorsed Romney, such as state Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley in his district, Sens. David Boutin, Chuck Morse and Tom Eaton in theirs, several county sheriffs, Cheshire County Attorney Peter Heed, and, executive councilors Ray Wieczorek, Ray Burton, Dan St. Hilaire and Chris Sununu.

And Romney has agreed to be the final candidate to appear in Jennifer Horn's “We the People” presidential town hall series. He's scheduled to appear on Sunday, Dec. 11, at 4 p.m., at the Hudson VFW. Horn's group has also hosted Jon Huntsman, Rick Santorum, Ron Paul and Rick Perry.

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CAIN STAFFERS WITH NEWT. Although Herman Cain has not yet endorsed Newt Gingrich, as he is expected to do, Gingrich's New Hampshire campaign has picked up two of Cain's top state staffers.

Former Cain state director Jamie Coughlin has joined the Gingrich New Hampshire staff as the director of Gingrich's “Campaign 2.0,” which, we're told, means he will be heading all social media, phone banking and “emerging technologies” in the first-primary campaign.

Charlie Spano, the former state field director and field director for Cain, is now with Gingrich as state deputy field director.

Cain's most prominent state supporter, Jack Kimball, the former state GOP chairman, said he will wait until Cain endorses a candidate before he does. He says it is a “99 percent certainty” that Cain will back Gingrich.

Also this week, Hillsborough County treasurer Bob Burns, a former Rick Perry supporter, joined Gingrich's staff as deputy state director.

Gingrich spokesman Matt LeDuc said the New Hampshire staff now numbers 15. Mitt Romney's campaign has nine staffers and one full-time adviser, a spokesman said.

We've also learned that former New Hampshire U.S. Sen. Bob Smith, who was announced last week as a Gingrich supporter, has moved to New Hampshire from Florida temporarily to work as a full-time volunteer at Gingrich headquarters.

Smith, who served in the House before becoming a senator and is a long-time friend of Gingrich from their days on Capitol Hill, “is really a go-to guy for anything,” said LeDuc. “He's making phone calls, doing interviews and basically anything he can for Newt.”

Also this week, former U.S. Attorney Tom Colantuono backed Gingrich.

Colantuono, now in private practice with the Bianco Professional Association in Concord and a part-time teacher at Southern New Hampshire University, is also a former state senator and executive councilor.

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SUPPORT FOR PERRY. We've learned that Perry picked up a former Cain backer of his own in John O'Brien, who had been Cain's Hillsborough County coordinator, overseeing volunteer recruitment.

Perry also secured the endorsement of New Hampshire Right-to-Life president Kurt Wuelper of Strafford.

Wuelper said Perry “unequivocally believes that life begins at conception and does not waiver in his protection of the unborn, unlike some self-professed pro-life candidates.”

John DiStaso is senior political reporter of the New Hampshire Union Leader.

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