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Granite Status: Meridian to guide Coburn race for governor

By JOHN DISTASO
Senior Political Reporter

WHO’S TO SAY today that Republican state Rep. Jim Coburn has no shot at unseating Democratic incumbent Gov. John Lynch in November?

Certainly not Jack Heath and his partners at Meridian Communications.

The Status has learned that in a move to validate his campaign for governor, Coburn today will announce hiring Meridian to handle its organizational and communication strategies.

Coburn has been saying since last fall he’s serious about making a serious challenge, and this proves it. He had hired a firm in Washington, but it didn’t work out.

“I’m a hands-on kind of a guy,” he said. “I like to brainstorm and get people pumped up, and it gets me pumped up. That was tough to do from Washington to New Hampshire.”

Coburn said he became interested in Meridian after it guided Mayor Frank Guinta to victory in Manchester. He said he hoped Meridian will help him “take better advantage of the media — not just the major papers but also the locals. If I’m in Lancaster next week, I want to make sure a reporter is there to report on the wonderful things we’re doing.”

Coburn said, “This will be a good race. I’m a good, decisive leader, and you’ll be hearing from me.”

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THE BIUNDO STRATEGY

Meridian partner Mike Biundo will manage Coburn campaign strategy and organization. Heath and Meridian partner Alicia Preston will focus on the message and the media.

That’s pretty much how it worked for the Guinta campaign.

With Lynch at a more than 70 percent public approval rating, how does one go about campaigning against him?

“Opinion polls are nothing more than a snapshot in time,” Biundo said. “We’ll run a race that is built around Jim’s character. Most people don’t know who Jim Coburn is, but they will.

"It’s very, very early, and our job is to get his name and message out there," said Biundo. "The Republican Party is looking for somebody with a concise and clear message, and Jim will have a Republican conservative message, with no sales and no income tax."

Heath’s firm is already signed on to consult for New York Gov. George Pataki’s political action committee. Presumably, Meridian will stay with Pataki if he decides to run for President.

But Heath said he is confident his firm can handle both.

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THE CLEMONS DECISION

He’s 38 years old, from a political family and says he is not finished in politics.

But Bret Clemons is finished in elective politics for this year.

As first reported by UnionLeader.com yesterday afternoon, Clemons has dropped out of the 2nd District U.S. House race, leaving Concord attorney Paul Hodes as the only Democrat gearing up to take on incumbent Republican Charlie Bass.

Clemons cited family and career obligations. A regional vice president with American Greeting Co. and the father of two young daughters, Clemons said, “Obligations are preventing me from devoting all the time I need to the campaign. It is too important of a race, and if I’m not fully engaged and can’t dedicate my full attention to it, the right thing for me to do is to step away.”

Clemons is the older brother of state Democratic Party executive director Nick Clemons. Their mother is Deputy House Democratic Leader Jane Clemons.

Hodes works in former First Man (we refuse to say “hunk”) Bill Shaheen’s law firm. Two years ago, he lost to Bass in a 58 to 38 percent landslide in a year when ticket-topping Democrats Lynch and John Kerry prevailed.

There is no indication Clemons was pressured to get out.

In fact, some Democrats felt a primary would have been a good thing, drawing attention to the candidates and to Bass. Someone may still step up, but there is no one on the radar screen this morning.

Clemons had $21,118 in his campaign account as of Dec. 31, 2005. He said he will use it to aid other Democrats on the ballot.

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CALLING KEN?

In the days before and after the state Republican Party’s 2002 Election Day phone-jamming scheme, the man who now chairs the Republican National Committee was the White House director of political affairs.

And a Democratic-affiliated advocacy group says that court records show Ken Mehlman’s office received more than 75 telephone calls from now-convicted phone-jam conspirator James Tobin from Sept. 30 to Nov. 22 of that year.

The Senate Majority Project, a brainchild “527” of former Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, wonders why Tobin called the White House so often. Tobin at the time worked for the Republican National Committee and the affiliated National Republican Senatorial Committee — and a hot race that year was the New Hampshire Senate contest between Republican John Sununu and Democrat Jeanne Shaheen.

On election morning, a telemarketer hired by the state GOP jammed the telephones of five state Democratic and one firefighters union get-out-the-vote phone banks.

Former state GOP executive director Chuck McGee admitted masterminding the scheme and served seven months in jail last year for it. Tobin was found guilty in December of federal telephone harassment charges for acting as a middle man. An appeal is expected if the trial court in Concord turns down his request for a new trial.

“All we have is the phone number and the fact that calls were made to the White House,” says SMP executive director Mike Gehrke, a former high-level Clinton administration staffer. “But we also know from the court record that a lot of other calls about the scheme were going on. For a period of time, this was the hot topic.

“With that many calls, I believe it’s inconceivable that there wasn’t some knowledge of this at the White House,” Gehrke said. “At the very least, it is evidence that there needs to be a bigger net cast here before the end of this case.”

Meanwhile, John McCain has hired Tobin’s old boss at the RNC, Terry Nelson, as an adviser to his Straight Talk America PAC.

Nelson was identified in the Tom DeLay indictment as the recipient of a $190,000 check in illegal corporate campaign contributions and a list of Republican candidates for the Texas Legislature for whom the money was intended.

In 2002, Nelson was Republican National Committee national political director while Tobin was both RNC New England political director and Northeast political director of the GOP senatorial committee.

Nelson and Tobin then moved to the Bush-Cheney 2004 campaign — Nelson as campaign political director and Tobin as New England chairman.

Dismissing the notion that Nelson had anything to do with phone-jamming, New Hampshire McCain strategist Michael Dennehy said of Nelson, “We’re happy to have him.”

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THE GATSAS AMENDMENT

It’s unlikely any Senate votes will change before the session ends on Senate President Ted Gatsas‘ education funding constitutional amendment.

Gatsas needed either of two Republicans, Bob Odell of Lempster (whose district includes Claremont) and Bob Letourneau of Derry, to vote with him and his 13 supporters. But they didn’t support him on a vote to change the wording of the proposed amendment. So, Gatsas had the proposed amendment tabled.

Given the sensitive positions of Odell and Letourneau in representing mostly property-poor districts, it’s a pretty sure bet they won’t flip.

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SOLID GOP

Although New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson joined John Kerry by jumping ship in New Hampshire’s battle with the Democratic National Committee to keep the Presidential primary’s pre-eminence intact, Republicans are on board, a top official says.

Republican National Committeeman Tom Rath, who attended the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Memphis two weekends ago, said he sensed no sentiment among other RNC members there to fool around with the primary process.

As for the would-be candidates, “Support is as solid as I’ve ever seen it. The candidates are very, very content being here. They’re voting their confidence in New Hampshire with their feet.”

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SULLIVAN’S NEW CHARGE

Manchester Democratic state Rep.

Peter Sullivan, who last year announced his candidacy for the 1st District U.S. House seat, has leveled a serious charge against the newcomer to the primary race, House Democratic leader Jim Craig.

Sullivan says Craig “misused” public funds by “announcing his candidacy for Congress on official, taxpayer-funded House letterhead.”

Craig said he sent the letter “only to members of the caucus to tell them that I had decided to run and that they deserved to hear it from me, and that I intended to stay on as Democratic leader if they would have me. It was my duty to tell the caucus what I had decided.”

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A WIN FOR WAYNE

Although it’s tough to predict what more than 400 Republican grassroots activists will do, all signs point to Wayne Semprini besting Wayne MacDonald and Fran Wendelboe in Saturday’s Republican State Committee vote for a new chairman.

If Semprini does win, expect him to ask MacDonald to stay on as party vice chairman as a tribute to MacDonald’s long service to the party.

Under the rules, the top vote-getter in the three-way race must receive 50 percent-plus-one vote to win on the first ballot. If not, there will be a runoff between the first two finishers.

MacDonald seems poised to win outgoing chairman Warren Henderson’s fundraising challenge, however.

Dennehy confirmed that MacDonald asked him if McCain would send some money the party’s way, and the Straight Talk PAC is sending a $10,000 check.

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ALL THE BEST, MARSHALL

Former House Speaker Marshall Cobleigh is hospitalized in Milton, Mass., near his daughter’s home, and the situation is serious, a friend says.

State Highway Safety Agency director Peter Thomson says Cobleigh, 75, is having difficulty with his heart and kidneys and is awaiting a transfer to Massachusetts General Hospital.

It’s safe to say there’s bipartisan agreement on a get-well wish for the legendary legislative “sausage maker.”

John DiStaso is senior political reporter of the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News.

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