BEDFORD, N.H. -- With little notice or fanfare, New Hampshire Republicans are preparing to make a bolder statement Tuesday than merely voting for presidential candidates. If Monday's trends continue, the voters could send the loudest GOP-based anti-war message in decades, or at least since the Vietnam War era.
Two anti-war candidates are now poised to do well, perhaps very well.
With the deep-pocketed Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) running at a consistent 20 percent in the polls, and with former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman slowly but surely rising in popularity in the closing days, it is now possible that their combined total will exceed that of the still-solid frontrunner in the race, Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts.
Romney, eager to strengthen his conservative credentials, has taken a particularly tough line on Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran, aligning himself with the most hawkish elements on the right wing of his own party.
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) have done the same. Texas Gov. Rick Perry -- following the lead of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who has endorsed Romney -- even suggested that the U.S. might soon need to send combat troops back into Iraq.
On his own, the ultra-Libertarian Paul and his anti-war stance can still be dismissed, or at least discounted, by the GOP establishment as a fringe, crank candidate, no matter how well-financed he is, and no matter how much support he claims from active military soldiers.
But as Huntsman rises into double digits, and his message resonates more in the "Live Free or Die" state, the GOP is going to have to consider not only that there is a true anti-war wing in its party, but also that the party is deeply vulnerable in 2012 if it sticks to the neocon line established by President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney after the 9/11 attacks and the U.S. response in the Middle East.
"Even the Republicans are turning against the war here," said Democrat Annie McLane Kuster, who is running for the 2nd Congressional District seat here against incumbent Republican Rep. Charlie Bass. Running as an anti-war candidate in 2010, Kuster lost to Bass by one percentage point in what was a disastrous year for Democrats.
Kuster reported having raised more than $1 million in her last quarterly report and claims 11,000 donors, and says that 90 percent of her cash has come from individuals, compared with 10 percent for Bass. Based in large part on her anti-war message, she is rated as having an excellent chance to beat Bass this time; Democratic officials in Washington have designated Kuster's race as a top priority in this year's cycle.
It's important to remain cautious about New Hampshire results: as many as one-third of the voters on Tuesday could be self-described "undeclared," meaning that they are not officially members of the Republican Party. But those tend to be right-leaning moderates who lean toward identifying with the GOP in broad terms.
"If they nominate a pro-war candidate they are going to be vulnerable in this state, and that is what this vote could show on Tuesday," said Kuster, whose long family lineage in politics includes Republicans in earlier generations.
One top Republican -- and Romney supporter -- agreed with that assessment, although he spoke on a not-for-attribution basis to avoid undercutting his candidate. "The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan especially aren't popular here, and we have to be careful. And all the saber-rattling about Iran won't help."
But for the Democrats to take advantage of the issue in New Hampshire in the fall, Kuster said, President Obama has to follow through on his promises to continue drawing down troops in Afghanistan, and fight for his $1 trillion cut in the defense budget over 10 years.
"Especially at a time when the Republicans are talking about cutting Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security, they simply can't simultaneously argue for more war and military spending," Kuster said. "It won't work here."
"For the first time in a long time -- and this began with Sen. John Kerry -- I think the Democrats have been able to argue that it is possible now to be pro-military AND pro-peace at the same time," she said. "We haven't been able to do that since Vietnam. President Obama has tried hard to make that point, and I think he is succeeding."
Whether Obama is making that point or not remains to be seen. In the meantime, look at the bottom line Tuesday night to see not only who won but also whether the "pro-peace" message really has a place in the Republican Party.
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