Conservative as ever, Bob Smith formally launches Senate comeback bid
CONCORD -- Saying he could not think of an issue where he's changed his staunchly conservative views since last holding office nearly a dozen years ago, Republican former U.S. Sen. Bob Smith formally launched his comeback bid Tuesday, hoping for the general election battle with Jeanne Shaheen for the U.S. Senate seat that eluded him in 2002.
Smith, who will be 73 on March 30, served two terms in the U.S. Senate from 1991 through 2002 before losing a party primary to former Sen. John E. Sununu. The loss came after Smith, in 1999, had taken to the Senate floor to criticize the Republican Party establishment and then left the party for several months to run for President as a third party candidate.
Smith, surrounded by a several dozen supporters at the Legislative Office Building, said he knows he paid a political price for his protest. But at the same time he sounded a similar alarm as 1999, calling for an adherence by GOP leaders to the party platform and an overall return to the "Ronald Reagan" values that prompted him to first become involved in elective politics more than three decades ago.
"There are too many people in Washington who have no sense of urgency regarding the challenges we face for the survival of our nation," Smith said. "That's why I'm here."
He said too many elected officials "have no idea why America is exceptional and no vision to restore its greatness."
"It's time Thomas Paine's summer soldiers and sunshine patriots to depart the scene and give way to a movement of grassroots freedom fighters who will stand up to the establishment and chart a new course for the country," he said.
Crediting the Tea Party with having a positive influence on the GOP and politics in general, Smith promised to fight the "central planners" in Washington on all fronts if elected, particularly on the Affordable Care Act, which was the only subject in his 20-minute announcement speech where he invoked Shaheen's name.
After his announcement, he waded into one of the hottest issues at the State House, saying he agrees "100 percent" with conservative state Sen. Andy Sanborn, R-Bedford, in opposition to the Medicaid subsidized health coverage expansion bill scheduled to be voted on by the state Senate on Thursday.
Smith also shrugged off a reporter's question about former Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Scott Brown's nearly year-long flirtation with a Senate run and the encouragement he has received from many establishment Republican.
"I don't know what he's going to do and I don't really care," Smith said. "I can't conduct my campaign based on somebody else."
But he said that in a primary, voters must decide "which candidate can show a clear delineation between himself or herself and the other side. And if others choose to encourage his candidacy, great. It's a great country. Knock yourself out."
After his announcement, Smith refused to comment on Sen. Kelly Ayotte's service in the Senate, telling reporters who asked about her, "You're making something out of nothing." He also refused to give an opinion on same-sex marriage, saying, "The courts have spoken."
Overall, Smith said he's been consistent on the issues throughout his political career.
"We need to stay focused on those values and principles that are part of our party and part of our whole essence of who we are as constitutional, freedom-loving people," he said.
Smith became the third official Republican candidate for the seat, joining former state Sen. Jim Rubens of Hanover and conservative activist Karen Testerman of Franklin. But he declined to criticize them, saying only, "I have some experience and background that perhaps others don't, but that's up to the voters to sort out."
Smith said the national debt has grown by $10 trillion since he left office, the National Security Agency "spies on its citizen," and "we have an IRS that harasses the administration's ideological opponents.
"We have a President who ignores the law and ignores the Constitution" and a "foreign policy that has emboldened our enemies and confused and alienated our allies," he said.
The state Democratic Party wasted no time criticizing Smith, calling him "out of step with New Hampshire values and the most conservative candidate in the race. He opposes a woman's right to choose, common sense gun safety laws, and equal rights for New Hampshire's LGBT citizens including marriage equality"
Shaheen's campaign immediately sent a fund-raising email to supporters, saying, Smith "was Tea Party before it had a name," and called both him and Brown "formidable challengers that we can't take lightly."
Smith said he campaign theme is, "Sacrifice your freedom on the altar of the central planners in Washington or reclaim your liberties and freedoms under the Constitution."
Describing himself as "battle-tested," smith said he is ready for "personal, vicious" attacks from the establishment of both parties.
"This is a war between them and us, and we have to win," he said.
Smith then quoted from the Merle Haggard song, "Are the Good Times Really Over?" and answered "I don't think so."
He called for ending to "pork barrel" project and the overall growth of the federal bureaucracy, to continuing resolutions, to omnibus spending bills, and to illegal immigration and "amnesty."
He called for term limits for federal judges, and a Reagan-like foreign policy of "peace through strength," entitlement reform, and a balanced budget constitutional amendment.
Smith also noted that he is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment, and also said, "There is no freedom more precious than the freedom of the right to be born."
Smith called for repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which he called an "insidious assault" on individual freedom." And he accused President Barack Obama and Shaheen of reneging on promises that the law would result in less expensive coverage with more choices and that those who liked their plans, doctors and hospitals they can keep them.
Smith has had a long and at times controversial political history in New Hampshire.
He emerged as a conservative favorite in the late 1970s after being involved in local politics in the Lakes Region. He lost his first attempt at the 1st District U.S. House seat in a GOP primary in 1980 and lost the general election in 1982. But he won that House seat easily in the 1984 Reagan second-term landslide and was reelected to the U.S. House in 1986 and 1988.
Smith won a U.S. Senate seat in 1990, by posting a 2-1 general election victory over Democratic former Sen. John Durkin.
In 1996, Smith faced a furious general election challenge from former U.S. Rep. Dick Swett. The national networks made a memorable blunder by announcing, based on exit polling, that Smith had lost. But when the votes were counted, Smith instead won a second term by 15,000 votes out of 491,000 cast.
In 1999, Smith, while serving in the Senate, briefly ran for the Republican presidential nomination, then left the party to run for the U.S. Taxpayers Party nomination, but later returned to the GOP.
Before he left the party, he spent more than an hour on the Senate floor in July 1999 accusing the Washington GOP establishment of ignoring the conservative principles laid out in the party platform.
The GOP, he said at the time, "is not a political party that means anything.
"It's a charade," said Smith in 1999, "and I'm not going to take part in it anymore."
After he returned to the GOP and decided to run for reelection, the party establishment in New Hampshire and Washington had soured on Smith.
John E. Sununu was drafted to run against him. Sununu won the 2002 GOP primary and went on to defeat then-Gov. Shaheen, who in turn defeated Sununu in 2008.
Smith last year recalled that President George W. Bush's chief adviser, Karl Rove, had told him prior to the 2002 election that the White House would support his reelection.
When that failed to materialize, Smith made what he last year called a "dumb mistake" in anger.
In 2004, a few days before the presidential election, Smith penned a letter endorsing Democrat John Kerry for President over Bush.
In December, Smith told the New Hampshire Union Leader in retrospect, "It was a dumb mistake. I did something in anger. I wrote a letter to John Kerry. I didn't do anything for him but I did write a letter because I was angry because of the endorsement promised me by President Bush via Karl Rove.
"I was angry and I regret it," he said. "I'm not proud of it but I'm moving on."
He reiterated those feelings on Tuesday.
A U.S. Navy veteran, Smith also was known in the House and Senate as a champion for obtaining the remains of Americans who had died in Vietnam. On a lighter note, he never hid his love for animals; his outspoken support for legislation that would have banned elephants from traveling shows was drew ridicule from his critics.
After being ousted from office, Smith relocated to Florida and became a real estate agent.
Smith said that while he has lived and maintained a real estate sales license in Florida for much of the past decade, he has also kept his home in Tuftonboro and has always spent "four or five months" a year there.
"I never gave up my home," he said Tuesday, noting that he also spent much of 2011 in New Hampshire helping former U.S. House speaker Newt Gingrich's presidential primary campaign.
During his time in Florida, Smith ran twice, briefly, for the U.S. Senate, in 2004 and 2010.
Like Brown if he runs, Smith faces the specter of being called a "carpetbagger" by critics. But like Brown, Smith said he has deep roots in New Hampshire.
Smith and his wife of 48 years, Mary Jo, have three children and three grandchildren.