Surprisingly Tight N.H. Governor Campaign

In a Republican state that has never refused a governor of either party a second term, Democrat John Lynch (search) is running a surprisingly strong campaign against freshman Republican Gov. Craig Benson (search).

Polls show the race about even.

Lynch has bet his campaign on portraying Benson as a poor chief executive who is guilty of cronyism and ethical scandals that have embarrassed the state.

Benson dismisses talk about scandals as "silly things" intended to divert voters' attention from his solid  tradition of electing Republican governors, and freshmen incumbents always are rewarded with another term. Governors serve two-year terms in New Hampshire.

As in most New Hampshire elections, taxes have been a major campaign theme.

Benson, 50, has made his anti-tax, anti-status quo philosophy the hallmark of his administration and campaign. He has painted the 51-year-old Lynch as a taxer — a political strategy that is grounded in decades of New Hampshire history and Republican victories on the issue.

Both men have pledged to veto broad-based income and sales taxes. New Hampshire has neither tax.

Taking "The Pledge," as it is known, was a prerequisite for candidates running for governor for 30 years until Democratic Gov. Jeanne Shaheen won a third two-year term in 2000 despite refusing to make the promise.

Benson insists Lynch has failed to prove he is fiscally conservative because he won't promise to veto all tax hikes. Lynch repeatedly has said he would consider increasing only one tax — the tobacco tax — to fund school aid.

At their fourth and final debate Tuesday, Benson again said voters could trust him — but not Lynch — to protect their wallets.

"There won't be any taxes on the Internet, on diapers, on water," Benson said.

Lynch countered that Benson is the one who cannot be trusted. He pointed to a nursing home tax — which helps the state get extra federal aid — enacted under Benson.

"He's broken the pledge he wants me to sign," Lynch said.

Both men are former corporate CEOs, but Lynch says any similarity between their resumes ends there. While Lynch won widespread praise for turning around Knoll, a near-bankrupt furniture maker in Pennsylvania, he says Benson was a lousy businessman who left his former company, Cabletron Systems, in ruins and under federal criminal investigation.

Benson then brought the same "culture of corruption" to the governor's office, Lynch says.

Benson's early efforts to curb health costs developed into one of his administration's worst scandals. In May, a former administration "volunteer" was fined for accepting $187,000 from insurance companies while she worked on a state health contract.

High-profile Benson appointees also have left state government because of questions about possible conflicts or questionable behavior. Most recently, Benson and the state's safety commissioner were accused of improperly meddling in an investigation that led the attorney general to resign.

Pollster Dick Bennett of the American Research Group in New Hampshire believes the race is a "squeaker" with Benson having a slight edge. He said the wildcard is how many independents who vote for presidential candidate John Kerry also vote for Lynch.

Bennett said focus groups he has run show Benson has done a better job selling himself as the anti-tax candidate while Lynch has failed to spell out what he would do differently than Benson.

"Lynch has never made a convincing case he would be better on taxes and spending," Bennett said. "He's saying, 'I'm a better person.' And voters are saying, 'How does that protect my pocketbook?"'