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Battleground Dispatches: In NH, Women Voters, Candidates Take Center Stage

In New Hampshire, a full roster of women are running for office, including both Democrats running for Congress and the Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

The focus on female voters and the issues that impact their lives only intensified this week following the second debate Tuesday between President Barack Obama and former Gov. Mitt Romney.

Both men tried to demonstrate they understand the challenges facing women in the country and to convince the nation’s largest voting block their policy prescriptions would do more good than the other guys.

“This is not just a women’s issue,” Mr. Obama said discussing equal pay for female workers. “This is a family issue. This is a middle-class issue. And that’s why we’ve got to fight for it.”

Taking on the controversial issue of birth control, Romney declared, “Every woman in America should have access to contraception.” (Watch our segment on this issue here.)

In the days before the debate, special correspondent Anna Sale of WNYC Radio joined a NewsHour team to travel to the battleground state of New Hampshire where the focus is not limited to women voters or issues. The spotlight also falls on a full roster of women running for office, all of whom are Democrats.

“It does seem striking having all women potentially be the representatives to Washington and also potentially sitting as the executive of the state,” said Elizabeth Ossoff, a professor of political psychology at Saint Anselm College. “But it’s not surprising in New Hampshire. New Hampshire has this track record, this history of being very comfortable with women in those positions.”

The two sitting senators from the state are women: Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Kelly Ayotte (neither are up for re-election this year).

Both Democrats running for Congress here are women, and so is the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Maggie Hassan. She’s also the only woman running for governor in the country.

If all three were to win it would be the first time a state would have women holding every top elected office. But victory is far from certain. Like the race for the White House here, each of these contests in New Hampshire are too close to call.

It’s also unclear the impact women’s issues will have on voters when they cast their ballots.

“Women’s health has become and is part of this campaign because all across the state of New Hampshire there are women who need to know whether they’re going to suddenly have to pay more for their healthcare,” Hassan told the NewsHour, referring to efforts by Republicans in the state to shut down Planned Parenthood. “If you defund Planned Parenthood, which my opponent supports, that means it’s going to be more expensive for cancer screenings, fertility treatments, birth control.”

Republican gubernatorial nominee Ovide Lamontagne argues Hassan’s focus on social issues is meant to distract voters from the problems facing the economy.

“Beginning the night of the primary when my opponent decided that she can’t run on her record or her plan, she has to run on social issues to take the voters’ mind off of what really matters,” Lamontagne said. “And so you have Planned Parenthood in here trying to distort not only my record, but what I can do. I am pro-life, but I am going to be the governor of New Hampshire, duty bound to enforce the laws of the state of New Hampshire and the United States of America. I can’t change Roe v. Wade. Somebody at the national level will have to do that by electing a president who may be able to change the composition of the Supreme Court.”

What does all this talk do to the campaign?

“Fiscal issues tend to rally the Republican base, but social issues — abortion, gay marriage, when they’re on the front burner, that tends to fracture the Republican base because the Republicans in New Hampshire are at best ambivalent about issues like abortion and gay marriage,” said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

The two congressional races are both rematches from 2010 and point to the unpredictable voting patterns of a state that takes pride in independence. Mr. Obama won here in 2008, but the tea party wave two years later gave Republicans control of the state legislature, and they won back the two congressional seats.

Republican Rep. Charlie Bass is running against Democrat Ann McLane Kuster, who ousted him from the seat in 2006, only to have him return the favor in 2010.

The two have been battling it out with aggressive TV ads like this one from Bass:

And this one from Kuster:

“This is a very important campaign for women voters,” said Kuster. “I think women are completely tuned in to the issues of opportunity and particularly fairness.”

Bass is not the typical Republican candidate, stressing a more liberal take on some of the social issues. “I have always lived in an environment where it is important to appeal to all voters – Republicans, Independents and obviously conservative Democrats,” he said. “I believe in women’s contraceptive health and women’s health issues. I am pro-choice.”

The other rematch in the state’s first congressional district is between Democrat Carol Shea-Porter and Republican Rep. Frank Guinta, who unseated her in 2010. This year, Shea-Porter is running against the tea party’s record in New Hampshire.

“We’re debating the tea party ideology and what I believe has been its great failure down in Washington versus a more centrist position,” Shea-Porter said. “It centers around jobs. We have a different viewpoint on jobs. It centers around Medicare and Social Security, whether they should be privatized or whether [they] continue as they are.”

For his part, Guinta is sticking to the message of wasteful spending swept him into office two years ago.

“They did have the stimulus, $800 billion and then it turns out that it wasn’t nearly as effective as they hoped it was going to be. We continue to see the borrowing, those things really frustrated America,” Guinta said. “The other side feels they have no choice but to try to ram the entire Republican Party as Tea Party and that just doesn’t hold water.”

Tune in Thursday night for Sale’s full report from New Hampshire. It is the second segment in the NewsHour’s series, “Battleground Dispatches,” a project funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in collaboration with public media partners around the country to bring you stories from areas critical to this year’s election.

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