New Hampshire, Iowa freshmen enjoy brighter spotlight and higher profile

The four freshman lawmakers from Iowa and New Hampshire enjoy a little more attention from political heavyweights just by virtue of having campaigned successfully in states famous for their early presidential contests.

The four freshman lawmakers from Iowa and New Hampshire enjoy a little more attention from political heavyweights just by virtue of having campaigned successfully in states famous for their early presidential contests.

As part of last year’s Democratic wave, four Democrats, two in New Hampshire and two in Iowa, were elected to the 110th Congress. During their campaigns, they benefited from financial and personal support from high-profile senators and others who either have announced or are contemplating a presidential run.

“Virtually everyone has helped me in one way or another,” freshman Rep. David Loebsack (D-Iowa) said of potential 2008 presidential candidates. “It is the case that on election night, I probably had more congratulatory phone calls than most people did.”

But as they look at reelection, they will be asked to some degree to return the favor.

“Their advice is invaluable in how … you go about winning in New Hampshire,” the chairwoman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, Kathy Sullivan, said. “They would be the first people I’d want to talk to.”

Sullivan said New Hampshire freshman Democratic Reps. Paul Hodes and Carol Shea-Porter offer presidential candidates intimate knowledge of the first-in-the-nation primary state as well as an established political organization from which to build a national campaign.

Sullivan added both lawmakers have shown they know the roadmap to winning with independent voters, a valuable voting bloc in the Granite State. Shea-Porter defeated Rep. Jeb Bradley with 52 percent of the vote, surprising most political pundits, and Hodes beat Rep. Charlie Bass with 53 percent.

While the congressional rookies find advantages in sharing the 2008 stump with political celebrities like Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) or Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), there are some drawbacks.

While Hodes, Shea-Porter, Loebsack and Rep. Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) will find friendly, well-known faces campaigning for their reelection, they will also have to answer the awkward question: To endorse, or not to endorse?

“There’s certainly going to be pressure on me to choose a candidate. That’s not the most comfortable place to be right now,” Hodes said.

Hodes said a staffer for one potential candidate has already asked for his support. The congressman declined to say which candidate the staffer worked for, and added the request may have been tongue-in-cheek.

“We are very used to face-time with presidential candidates,” Hodes said. It was announced last week that CNN, along with New Hampshire’s WMUR-TV and Union-Leader newspaper, will host Democratic and Republican debates in the state in early April.

Shea-Porter and Loebsack both said they anticipate being asked for an endorsement, but both said it is too early and they may not commit to one candidate at all over the next year.

“I like them all. While I may or may not have personal feelings, I am staying out of the fray,” Shea-Porter said, adding that she had campaigned with or received congratulatory phone calls from Obama, retired Gen. Wesley Clark and Sens. Joseph Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Chris Dodd (D-Conn.).

And Loebsack said he has “made it clear to everyone” running that he considers it too early to endorse.

The research director at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, Dean Spilliotes, said the lawmakers would be wise to avoid the appearance of being “too identified with a particular campaign.”

Spilliotes said a politician who ties his fate to a presidential candidate might enjoy success if that candidate wins, but in a crowded field is just as likely to be backing an eventual loser. If this happens, he runs the risk of suffering the same fate as the horse he bet on.

Instead, a congressman running for reelection is in a better position if he is identified as a friend to all the candidates, lauding the state’s place in the primary calendar, enjoying the expanded press coverage and positioning himself between “political elites” and the state party.

“I think they’re sort of better off as being statesmen,” Spilliotes said.

Spilliotes used the example of former Rep. Bill Zeliff (R-N.H.), who supported former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) in 1996. Both Dole and Zeliff, who was running for governor, lost the New Hampshire primary that year.

“I think it came back to haunt them because [Pat] Buchanan won the primary,” he said.

And while as freshmen these four lawmakers may enjoy more attention from their high-profile colleagues, that doesn’t necessarily help them stand out in a crowd of 435 members.

“Do we here view that as some sort of legislative advantage for us? That’s not something we really talk about,” Spilliotes said.