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Springtime for New England Republicans?

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There was a time when New England sent lots of Republicans to Washington. These were fiscally conservative but socially liberal "Rockefeller Republicans," also found in the Northwest, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic states. As the party turned socially conservative and fiscally reckless, many Yankees departed. The trend culminated in the George W. Bush administration, which seemed to stand for everything New Englanders didn't.

The 2008 election felled the region's last surviving GOP House member, Connecticut's Christopher Shays. The six states now send only three Republicans to the U.S. Senate. They are New Hampshire's Judd Gregg, who will not run again in 2010, and the two Mainers, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, whom party hotheads dismiss as irritating curiosities.

But green Republican shoots are emerging from the spring muck. The most conspicuous one involves the falling fortunes of embattled Connecticut Sen. Christopher Dodd, up for re-election next year. A new poll has the once seemingly invincible Democrat tied with former Congressman Rep. Rob Simmons, a Republican from eastern Connecticut.

Contrary to myth, New England is not firmly sewn in the Democratic bag. Three of the states — Connecticut, Vermont and Rhode Island — have Republican governors. Meanwhile, independents make up huge voting blocs throughout the region.

In Connecticut, 45 percent of registered voters are independents. Only 34 percent are Democrats, and the remaining 21 percent Republican.

True, a Democrat took away Simmons' House seat in 2006. But the three-term rep lost it by only 83 votes and in a dismal year for Republicans nationally. In recent elections, two other Connecticut House Republicans, Nancy Johnson and the aforementioned Shays, were defeated but not trounced.

"All those Republicans lost because of George W. Bush," Kenneth Dautrich, an adviser to Republican Gov. Jodi Rel, told me. "He's gone."

Rel now enjoys a 75 percent approval rating.

That's remarkably high for a governor at any time but extraordinary in the middle of a big, fat economic crisis. It's another reason why Democratic overconfidence would be ill-advised.

Dodd's career may fall victim to a series of careless acts. As a presidential candidate, Dodd sought to curry favor with Iowa caucus-goers by moving the family to Des Moines. Many folks back home took offense, and understandably so.

More troubling were his relationships with the financiers who contributed to his campaign — and whom he was supposed to regulate as chairman of the Senate Banking Committee. Not everyone buys Dodd's conflicting accounts of why he changed language in a bill to protect $165 million in AIG executive bonuses. And similar doubts follow his explanation of his sweetheart mortgage, courtesy of Angelo Mozilo, head of the infamous Countrywide Financial.

Dodd is also linked to some questionable real estate deals, including one with convicted insider trader Edward Downe. In 2001, Dodd urged Bill Clinton to grant Downe a presidential pardon, and the president delivered one.

The pace of any Republican recovery in New England will depend on several factors, Dautrich believes. One is the economy, which by 2010 will belong to Barack Obama and the Democratic majorities in Congress.

"If we're in double-digit unemployment and the stock market hasn't bounced back and inflation has reared up, the Republicans are going to have a cleanup year," Dautrich contends.

As for 2012, New England Republicans will need an acceptable presidential candidate. "If it's Sarah Palin, forget it," Dautrich says. "But not if it ends up being (Minnesota Gov.) Tim Pawlenty or another different kind of Republican."

Are today's New Englanders the same cranky people who once filled their congressional delegations with Republicans? The GOP obviously hopes so. And every day that plants the Bush administration deeper into history brightens the party's prospects in New England.

To find out more about Froma Harrop, and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2009 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

DISTRIBUTED BY CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

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