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Jeanne Shaheen, the former governor running for the U.S. Senate, rarely mentions her opponent’s name without mentioning George W. Bush. The Democrat’s supporters wield signs depicting the president and U.S. Senator John E. Sununu ’87, a fellow Republican, arm in arm. Outside a debate this week, Shaheen backers hoisted a loudspeaker that blared Bush’s voice: “John Sununu was with me from the beginning … John Sununu was with me from the beginning …”

Seeking to further capitalize on the president’s unpopularity, a TV spot sponsored by national Democrats shows the president’s face morphing into Sununu’s. Sununu has branded that ad “one of the worst things I’ve seen in politics.” He has countered that Shaheen is a liberal who has displayed a dangerous lack of judgment and will vote to raise taxes.

One of the most closely watched campaigns in the country, the New Hampshire Senate race between two deeply experienced Granite State politicians known for their wonky command of policy has devolved into a mudslinging fight featuring harsh TV ads and hot-tempered exchanges.

The only thing civilized in the debate Tuesday night in Henniker was the brick fireplace in the background. The candidates repeatedly spoke over each other like bickering siblings.

The high passions reflect the high stakes in New Hampshire.

The race represents one of the Democrats’ best chances at picking up a Senate seat as the party tries to win a filibuster-proof 60-seat majority in the Senate.

Bush’s dismal poll numbers, the downturn in the economy, and the state’s leftward shift in recent years are weighing on Sununu’s chances. Polls have indicated that Shaheen – who lost to Sununu in the 2002 Senate race – has a lead averaging about six points.

“John Sununu is facing a real strong headwind,” said Wayne Lesperance, an associate professor of political science at New England College in Henniker. “The Republican brand in New Hampshire is struggling. What we’re seeing is instead of talking about his Republican status, he’s trying to create that maverick status and stand with John McCain.”

McCain and the GOP vice presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, have visited New Hampshire in recent days and appeared at rallies with Sununu. But the state is changing and may no longer be the most conservative in New England.

It was the only state in the country to reverse its view of Bush, supporting him in the 2000 presidential election but rejecting him in favor of Senator John F. Kerry of Massachusetts in 2004. In 2006, New Hampshire elected a Democratic governor by the widest margin in state history; two moderate incumbent Republican congressman were defeated; and for the first time since 1874, Democrats took control of both houses in the state Legislature.

Statewide, voter registration has also eroded for Republicans. In 2002, the last time Sununu and Shaheen faced off, Republicans had an 11-point lead in registered voters. Now, both parties have about 31 percent of the electorate.

Like McCain, Sununu is running as an independent-minded politician who has been willing to challenge his own party. He reminds voters that he was one of 15 senators to oppose Alaska’s infamous “Bridge to Nowhere.” While he characterizes Shaheen as a “typical liberal Democrat who will raise taxes,” the word “Republican” does not even appear on his own campaign website.

At 44, he is the youngest member of the Senate and frequently mentions that he is also the only engineer in the chamber. An MIT-educated engineer with an MBA from Harvard, Sununu is the son of John H. Sununu, a three-term New Hampshire governor and President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff.

Shaheen, who also helmed the state for three terms, is running as an agent of change who can reform Washington. She passes out signs that read “A New Direction” and plays songs like Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin”’ at campaign rallies. She has seized on the economy and people’s fears about financial collapse, criticizing Sununu’s support for a partial privatization of Social Security that would “take seniors’ retirement and gamble it on the stock market.”

After she lost the Senate race to Sununu in 2002, Shaheen, now 61, served as a national chairwoman for Kerry’s presidential campaign and was also director of the Institute of Politics at Harvard.

Both candidates are known more for their intellect than their inspiring rhetoric, and they stay on message while using terms like “pay-go budgeting,” “S&L crisis,” and “R&D tax credits.”

“We’re talking about two smart politicians here, and both kind of moderately popular in the state,” said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire. “They have a lot in common in terms of personal characteristics. Neither of them is a particularly flamboyant politician.”

The hurdles for Sununu can be seen in southern New Hampshire, a traditionally conservative area that voted overwhelmingly for him six years ago.

“He’s killing me with gas prices,” said Rand McAfoose, a 60-year-old who voted for Sununu in 2002 but plans to vote for Shaheen next month. “All he does is vote for the big oil companies and follow Bush like a puppy.”

For the first time in recent memory, the Democrats have established a campaign headquarters in Derry. That has forced local Republicans, who rarely had to fight for votes in the past, to become more organized and open up an office of their own less than a mile away.

Sununu embraced Bush during two presidential visits to New Hampshire during his victorious 2002 Senate campaign. Now the senator’s attitude could be summed up as: W. who? Sununu’s counterattacks on Shaheen, meanwhile, feature a commercial with 2002 footage that shows the former governor saying, “I’ll stand with President Bush.” The quote is replayed four times in the 30-second spot.

Sununu had a significant financial advantage for the last month of the campaign. He raised $6.6 million in the last two years compared with Shaheen’s $6.4 million, although Shaheen brought in nearly $1 million more than Sununu in the most recent quarter. Sununu had $3.6 million in his campaign account as of Sept. 30, compared with $1.8 million for Shaheen.

But Shaheen has the advantage of not being in Washington at a time when approval ratings of Congress are at an all-time low. And she has not had to cast gut-wrenching votes, like whether to approve a $700 billion financial industry bailout — a topic that has come up in debates.

“It is a perfect bill? No,” Sununu, who voted for the legislation, said at a debate earlier this month at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. “But it is necessary. And to simply say, ‘I wish Congress had kept working on it to get it right,’ but then not really have any suggestions for how to improve it other than vaguely referring to taxpayer protection, that isn’t leadership.”

“John,” Shaheen replied. “I don’t need a lecture about leadership.”

Shaheen initially said she would “be inclined to vote for” the bailout, but later said she opposed it because it did not do more to protect taxpayers with additional oversight on financial institutions.

“We couldn’t just stand aside and do nothing in Washington,” Sununu said in an interview this week in Durham. “That’s an indication Jeanne Shaheen’s lack of judgment is dangerous in these very, very tough economic times.”

Some voters seem tired of the negative tone of the election, and don’t appear enthusiastic for either candidate.

“Mostly it’s typical rhetoric,” said Dave Morgan, a 68-year-old retired truck driver from Manchester. “She has less negatives than he does. And that’s the only criteria you can use with a politician.”