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John DiStaso's Granite Status: Conservative Kevin Smith says 'I'm in' for governor

Senior Political Reporter

November 02. 2011 8:54PM

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 16, UPDATE: HE'S IN. The official Republican field for the 2012 governor's election has doubled in size _ from one to two.

The Granite Status has learned that former Cornerstone Action executive director Kevin Smith, after thinking long and hard about it, has decided to run for governor.

'I'm in,' Smith said in an interview. 'I'm definitely running.'

He has opened a 'Kevin Smith for New Hampshire' political action committee and will begin raising money and organizing a leadership committee. will be online Thursday morning.

Smith, who said he'll wait on a formal announcement until after the presidential primary, joins Republican Ovide Lamontagne and Democrat Maggie Hassan in officially bidding to succeed outgoing Gov. John Lynch.

Smith plans a conference call with reporters tomorrow to talk more about it.

The 34-year-old husband and father of three, who grew up in Londonderry and lives in Litchfield, is known for having grown Cornerstone Action into the state's leading conservative advocacy group.

He noted that during his three years in the post, he broadened Cornerstone's scope from a social issues group into a 'full spectrum conservative organization that got involved in a lot of the fiscal issues.'

Smith said his background as a liaison in former Gov. Craig Benson's office and as an assistant director of the state Division of Juvenile Justice, where he headed finance and quality assurance functions and developed a 'taxpayer report card,' gives him a strong background in management.

He was elected to the state House at 19, serving on the Judiciary and Family Law Committee.

With the theme of 'Bold New Leadership,' Smith said the focus of his campaign will be on reforming state government and job creation.

'Any candidate who doesn't understand that this campaign needs to be about jobs creation for New Hampshire is missing the boat entirely, and that's what I'm going to be talking about,' he said.

Smith said too many employers have migrated out of the state, chased by the state's over-regulation and unfriendly business tax climate.

'We have some of the highest business taxes in the country, particularly the Business Enterprise Tax,' he said. 'It either needs to be reformed or eliminated. It is so foolish to be taxing businesses that are not making a profit. We're taxing them on their labor and it is entirely unfair.'

And as expected, Smith said, 'Unequivocally, there will be no broad-based tax if I'm elected governor,' he said. He also opposes expanded gambling.

'I think as a state we can do better than that to bring us down the path to economic prosperity,' he said.

Smith said his goal is to be 'Deval Patrick's worst nightmare' by keeping Granite Staters, including college graduates, at home to pursue careers and by personally 'poaching jobs' from Massachusetts.

'We're second in the country per capita in number of people who drive out of state to go work,' he said. 'First, we need to improve the climate. We need to convince (out-of-state business owners) why they need to move to this state.'

Chairing Smith's PAC is former Cheshire County Republican Chair Juliana Bergeron of Keene. The treasurer is former professional track and field athlete John Mortimer of New London, who heads a private athletic event development firm.

(Earlier updates and the full Nov. 10 Granite Status follow.)

TUESDAY, NOV. 15, UPDATE: OBAMA IN NH. The Granite Status has learned that President Barack Obama is set to return to New Hampshire.

A White House official said this afternoon the President will be in Manchester next Tuesday, Nov. 22, to discuss the American Jobs Act. Details have yet to be announced.

It will be Obama's first visit to New Hampshire since Feb. 2, 2010, when he spoke to about 1,600 people at the Nashua North High School auditorium. At that time, Obama was pushing his Affordable Care Act and was calling for a freeze in discretionary spending.

In recent weeks, the President has been traveling the county trying to build public support for pressuring congressional Republicans to take up his $447 million jobs plan.

Earlier this week, in Honolulu, Obama said, 'The American people, at this point, are wondering about congressional leadership in failing to pass the jobs bill, the components of which the majority of Americans, including many Republicans, think is a good idea.'

Obama's plan proposes infrastructure improvements and funding for teacher and public sector jobs, and an expansion of a temporary payroll tax cut.

Obama has vowed to 'keep on pushing' for the plan and 'just keep chipping away at this.'

The President is facing almost daily criticism in New Hampshire as GOP candidates for his job continue to blast his leadership qualities, experience and government philosophy.

Nearly a month ago, a WMUR Granite State Poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center disclosed that Obama's approval rating had hit a new low in New Hampshire, at 41 percent, while 53 percent disapproved of the job he is doing as President.

Only 35 percent of independents said they approved of how he is handling his job.

But Obama's campaign is just getting organized in the Granite State and Democrats believe that the state will ultimately be in his column a year from now.

(Earlier updates and the full Nov. 10 Granite Status follow.)

TUESDAY, NOV. 15, UPDATE: SANTORUM'S THANKSGIVING WEEKEND. The Granite Status has learned that Rick Santorum will further accelerate the pace of his New Hampshire campaigning the day after Thanksgiving.

He is scheduled to return to the state on Friday, Nov. 25 and remain through Monday, Nov. 28.

The tentative schedule calls for stops in all 10 counties and includes six town halls.

(Earlier updates and the full Nov. 10 Granite Status follow.)

TUESDAY, NOV. 15, UPDATE: SANTORUM ENDORSEMENTS. Former Pennsylvania U.S. Rick Santorum has picked up the first-primary state endorsements of a prominent pro-life leader and three New Hampshire House members in his bid for the GOP presidential nomination.

Dan Hogan of Nashua is a trustee of New Hampshire Right-to-Life and president of the Education Resource Institute, an abstinence-based group. He is also a member of the Nashua Republican Committee.

Santorum is also being backed by Republican state Reps. Gary Hopper of Weare, H. Bart Hardwick of Francestown and Kirsten Schultz of Somersworth, bringing his total of House endorsements to 17.

Hogan called Santorum 'our nation's most stalwart defender of life for nearly two decades.'

Hopper, chairman of House Fish and Game and Marine Resources Committee, said he shared Santorum's belief that 'government grows in response to the breakdown of the family.'

Hardwick said Santorum 'understands that our rights are given to us from God, and not to the government to simply be spread around.'

And Schultz, a Tea Party activist who serves on the House State and Federal Relations and Veterans Affairs committees, called Santorum ' a man of honor, integrity, and infinite knowledge on the challenges that we face as a nation.'

(Earlier updates and the full Nov. 10 Granite Status follow.)

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 9, UPDATE: BIDEN IN MANCHESTER. When Vice President Joe Biden returns to New Hampshire on Thursday, he will attend a gathering of several dozen Manchester area veterans before heading to Concord for the Nackey S. Loeb First Amendment program.

The Granite Status has learned that Biden will meet with roughly 50 vets at the American Legion Henry J. Sweeney Post 2 in Manchester in mid-afternoon.

We understand it's an official, as opposed to a campaign, event.

(Earlier updates and the full Nov. 3 Granite Status follow.)

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 9, UPDATE: GOVERNOR GATSAS? Even before he was reelected as Manchester's mayor on Tuesday night, Ted Gatsas was being mentioned as one of the leading potential Republican candidates for governor next year.

Now that he's won reelection, he's doing nothing to squelch that speculation. On the contrary, today, he fanned the fire.

Earlier in the year, Gatsas said he would serve a full term as mayor if reelected. In June, when he kicked off his reelection bid, he stressed several times during his remarks at St. George Greek Orthodox Church that he would serve a full term.

In September, after Gov. John Lynch announced he will not seek a fifth term, Gatsas reaffirmed his commitment to a full term as mayor, telling New Hampshire Union Leader City Hall reporter Beth Lamontagne Hall, 'I don't change my mind based on what other people's decisions are.'

But in recent weeks, he began to hedge a bit.

Last month, as rumors about Gatsas' intentions circulated, the Manchester City Democratic Committee demanded in a press release that he make his intentions known. Hall then asked him point blank if he will serve a full term if reelected.

'The clear answer is I'm running for mayor,' Gatsas said.

This morning, in the wake of his 70 percent landslide victory, Gatsas moved even closer to a possible run for the State House corner office.

We asked him directly whether he's going to serve his full term.

'It's very difficult to say 'yes' or 'no,'' he said. 'It's important to find out who the candidates are and hear what they have to say and we'll take a look at it then,' offering no specific timetable.

Gatsas said, 'There are even people here in Manchester who voted for me and said, 'You know, if it comes up, you should consider it because it's a way that we can make sure that the City of Manchester has a voice in Concord.''

Gatsas, a former state senator, said he should not be described as 'seriously considering' running for governor because he is 'working right now on getting a budget done' for the city.

But he's not ruling out running for governor, either, right?

'I would never rule anything out,' he said, 'because there have been too many people that have called and asked me to consider it and think about it, and certainly I owe them that respect.'

So far Republican Ovide Lamontagne and Democrat Maggie Hassan have declared candidacies for governor.

WEDNESDAY, NOV. 9, UPDATE: A COVETED ENDORSEMENT. Gatsas said he received congratulatory calls from Mitt Romney on Tuesday night and from Newt Gingrich this morning.

He said he does intend to endorse a candidate in the GOP presidential race in the next few weeks.

He said he would watch tonight's debate in Michigan, and, 'Some of the candidates are coming in in the next couple of weeks when they're back in town, and we'll talk to them and then I think we'll make a decision.'

(Earlier updates and the full Nov. 3 Granite Status follow.)

TUESDAY, NOV. 8, UPDATE: CHRISTIE HEADS NORTH. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie will make his first surrogate campaign appearance for presidential candidate Mitt Romney in New Hampshire on Wednesday.

The Granite Status has learned that Christie will make two public stops in the Granite State before heading to Boston for a debate-watching party at Romney's national headquarters.

We've also learned that Romney has picked up the endorsement of prominent Nashua businessman and former state Republican Party Chairman John Stabile, who will host Christie at a house party.

A week after announcing that he would not be a candidate for President, Christie endorsed Romney on Oct. 11 at Dartmouth College prior to a presidential candidates' debate.

Wednesday's visit will be the first time Christie will go on the road for Romney since the announcement. Romney's campaign emphasized that while Christie will campaign across the country for Romney, his first stop on Romney's behalf will be in New Hampshire.

Christie will visit Romney's Manchester campaign headquarters at 361 Elm St., at 5 p.m. on Wednesday. He will then head to Stabile's home in Nashua for a house party that evening.

Christie will then go to Boston to watch the Michigan debate with the winner of a Romney campaign contest. He is the 'special guest' the campaign advertised in soliciting small donations.

Stabile, meanwhile, becomes the fifth former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party to back Romney, joining John H. and Nancy Sununu, Donna Sytek, and Jerry Carmen.

Stabile, who did not endorse a candidate in the 2008 cycle, said he was drawn to Romney in the current campaign because he is a 'consensus-builder' and has both government and private sector experience.

He said Romney succeeded with a Democratic-controlled Legislature in Massachusetts by compromising.

'The far left and the far right are heading this country in the wrong direction,' said Stabile. 'We need someone who is not dogmatic and not autocratic.'

Romney spokesman Ryan Williams welcomed Stabile's endorsement and Christie's visit to the state, calling Christie 'a national leader in the fight to reform government and cut spending.'

(An earlier update and the full Nov. 3 Granite Status follow.)

THURSDAY, NOV. 3, UPDATE: MITT TO RICK: 'DEFICITS MATTER.' Mitt Romney and Rick Perry's campaigns traded criticisms on fiscal issues Thursday, with Romney taking aim at comments Perry made about jobs and the federal budget during an interview last week with the New Hampshire Sunday News.

In the interview, Perry made national news by saying he is less concerned about the short-term effect of his optional 20 percent flat tax plan on the federal deficit than he is about giving 'job creators' a major incentive to get the economy moving again and getting people back to work.

Perry last week unveiled a plan he calls 'Cut, Balance and Grow' that includes an optional 20 percent flat tax and a reduction in the corporate tax rate to 20 percent and begins to institute entitlement and regulatory reforms and budget cuts.

Perry said he did not believe the plan will, even initially, 'blow a hole in the budget,' as critics allege.

But he said, 'I'm less worried about whether or not we've got some budget holes to fill in the early years than I am getting the confidence of the job creators that they can actually go out and risk their capital and have a chance to have a return on their investment and create jobs.'

Under his plan, he stressed, 'By 2020, that budget will be balanced.'

On Thursday, Romney's campaign highlighted those comments in a news release headlined 'Romney to Perry: Deficits Matter.'

'If Rick Perry thinks deficits don't matter, then he's no different than President Obama,' said Romney campaign policy director Lanhee Chen. 'Deficits matter. His opinion shouldn't surprise anyone, though.

Calling it a 'deficit-expanding plan,' Chen charged that in Texas, Perry 'covered up his massive budget deficit with billions of dollars from the very same Obama stimulus he claimed to oppose.'

Romney was scheduled to deliver a major fiscal policy speech in Washington on Friday after giving a preview of his plan at the Exeter Town Hall on Thursday evening.

Perry spokesman Ray Sullivan countered that Perry's plan balances the budget by 2020, 'reduces and flattens taxes and significantly cuts federal spending. Unlike Mr. Romey's plan, which keeps current personal income tax rates and is largely silent on balancing the budget, Governor Perry offers significant spending and tax cuts and a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution. He has a long record of fighting for and signing six balanced state budgets, of reducing state spending and state taxes.'

(The full Nov. 3 Granite Status follows.)

THURSDAY, NOV. 3: THE VIRAL PERRY VIDEO. Within a day of Texas Gov. Rick Perry's speech to about 450 people at the Cornerstone Action fund-raising dinner in Manchester Friday night, a YouTube highlight video of the 25-minute speech went viral.

Views yesterday were approaching 1 million and the speech had been the subject of talk show jokes and Internet speculation.

'Best-case scenario, that dude's hammered,' deadpanned Jon Stewart of the Daily Show.

Perry was animated, giddy and yes, maybe his mannerisms were a little silly at times.

But drunk, as some in the media have asked or implied? Or on medication, perhaps related to his recent back surgery?

This columnist wasn't there, so can't say. Perry had just been to the New Hampshire Union Leader a few hours earlier and there was a major story to write.

Our reporter on the scene, veteran Mark Hayward, said he saw no evidence that Perry was under the influence of anything other than a big dose of enthusiasm.

Hayward noted it was the first time he had covered Rick Perry and so had no basis for comparison, but said, 'I thought he was enjoying himself with fellow social conservatives.

'I didn't think he was intoxicated at all,' Hayward said. 'I thought he was light-hearted and having a good time with like-minded people.

Kevin Smith, whose resignation as Cornerstone's executive director was effective Monday, reiterated in an interview yesterday what he told the national press earlier in the week: Perry wasn't drunk.

Smith told The Hill on Tuesday: 'I can tell you unequivocally he wasn't drinking at the event and he hadn't been drinking prior to the event. I was sitting with him and I found him to be very engaging with all of the people he was talking with. He was very articulate.'

Yesterday, he told the Status, 'The only thing I ever saw him drinking was water.

'My take, he was very relaxed and articulate,' said Smith, who is uncommitted in the primary race. He said he 'never imagined' at the time of the speech what would be made of it in the following days.

'It didn't seem weird at the time,' he said. 'None of the people in the audience came up and said anything to us after. If anything, the comments were very positive. He seemed passionate and I think they liked the animated Perry.

'Some did comment that they wished they had seen him this way during the debates rather than the Rick Perry who was stiff,' Smith said.

Jennifer Horn, another uncommitted conservative, called the speculation that Perry was under the influence 'unbelievable' and 'a total crock.'

'He was being animated and charming and funny,' she said, noting he received a standing ovation. 'It was the best speech I've ever seen him give.'

Horn said the speculation is a no-win for Perry.

'What do you say?' she said. 'It's kind of like having to prove that you don't beat your wife. It's the most ridiculous accusation.'

Horn was organizing a news conference for today with other conservatives who were at the dinner.

'The message is essentially that we were there, we saw it and we had no reason to question his state of mind,' Horn said.

'The bigger message is that we're wasting time on something that's not a story when we have four or more credible plans from Republicans right now on how to right our economic ship.'

Executive Councilor Ray Wieczorek, a Mitt Romney supporter who Perry mentioned in the speech, said, 'He was very loose, obviously.'

But inebriated?

'I wouldn't say that. I don't know the guy well enough to say.'

Wieczorek did say, 'If he was thinking of making a presidential speech, I don't think this was it. But maybe when you're in a setting with people who think the way you do, maybe he just thought he could let himself loose.'

As for the national media commentary that the speech was 'unusual' or even 'bizarre,' Wieczorek said, 'I'm so suspect of these television stations and reporters. They're all supporting Obama.'

You can view the entire 25-minute speech, rather than the eight-minute 'edited-for-laughs' version, below and judge for yourself.

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A BIG PERRY PICK-UP. Another of the state's more influential conservatives loved it.

Franklin Mayor Ken Merrifield, who was a Merrimack County co-chair for Romney's 2008 campaign, told the Granite Status yesterday he's endorsing Perry this time.

Merrifield said he had been 'headed in the direction' of backing Perry prior to last Friday's speech, but said the speech 'capped it for me. I thought it was terrific.

'I thought it was the right mix of humor and policy,' Merrifield said, calling it 'Reagan-esque.'

Merrifield, who was recently elected to his third term, said he strongly supports Perry's 'Cut, Balance and Grow' plan and his call for energy independence.

Merrifield said he respects Romney and would not directly criticize him.

But he did say, 'Rick Perry doesn't calculate his positions. He is willing to tell you he disagrees with you and say why. That's really different than bending a position to try to make it fit a certain focus.'

The Merrifield endorsement comes as Perry steps up his campaign in New Hampshire with a new television and radio ad.

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MOVING FOR MITT. We've learned that Mitt Romney today will announce he is being endorsed by one of the staunchest conservatives in the state Senate.

Russell Prescott of Kingston was a Mike Huckabee supporter in 2008 and calls Romney the candidate best equipped to create jobs.

Prescott, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee, said that Romney, like him, wants to repeal 'business-slowing' regulations.

Prescott becomes the eighth state senator to back Romney. There are 19 Republicans in the Senate.

Four-term state Rep. Elaine Swinford, R-Barnstead, has flipped from Perry to Romney, joining seven-term Plaistow Rep. Norm Major, whose shift we reported last Friday.

Swinford, a member of House GOP leadership as chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said she supported Romney in 2008, but in this cycle, initially felt that Perry was the stronger candidate.

'I was impressed with his employment numbers in Texas and the budget there,' Swinford said.

But she said 'the more he was out there, the less impressed I was' with Perry. 'As the weeks have passed I have become disillusioned with his campaign.'

She said she no longer believes 'he is capable' of defeating President Barack Obama.

'I want somebody who can take on not only Obama, but also other world leaders,' she said.

Swinford began having second thoughts a few weeks after she announced her endorsement of Perry, when Robert Jeffress, senior pastor at the First Baptist Church in Dallas, called Romney's Mormon faith 'a cult' and said that 'being a fine person with a great family and great values does not get you to heaven.'

Swinford noted that Perry 'refused to denounce these disturbing comments.'

She doesn't like Perry's tax reform plan, either.

As a legislator, she said, she 'cannot support any kind of flat tax. It is not in the New Hampshire tradition.'

Swinford said she has become 'increasingly impressed' with Romney and his understanding of 'how the economy works.'

Prescott and Swinford are expected to be with Romney at 5:30 p.m. today at Exeter Town Hall as he gives a preview of the major fiscal policy speech he will deliver Friday in Washington.

The Obama campaign will release a memo in advance of the Romney speech in Exeter focusing on how Romney's plan will, in its view, hurt the middle class.

Obama state spokesman Frank Benenati said Romney is endorsing 'the same Republican policies that have eroded economic security for middle class and working families for a decade. He supports economic plans that would end Medicare as we know it, cut K-12 education, and wipe out investments in critical programs that would create the jobs of the future, all while preserving tax cuts for millionaires and billionaires.'

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ADDING STAFF. The campaigns of Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum are adding staff.

Gingrich's growing New Hampshire team will announce that former Tim Pawlenty staffer Erin Lamontagne (niece of 2012 candidate for governor Ovide Lamontagne) has joined Gingrich to help with social media, recruit volunteers and organize coalitions.

Gingrich will return to New Hampshire on Veterans Day.

Rick Santorum announced yesterday he has added state Reps. Regina Birdsell and Logan Chism to his paid staff.

Birdsell will manage operations in the campaign headquarters, while Chism will be a campaign field representative for Hillsborough and Cheshire counties.

Also this week, Jon Huntsman's campaign announced a 47-member New Hampshire 'Jobs Creators for Huntsman' coalition co-chaired by Renee Riedel-Plummer, an executive at Two International Group in Portsmouth, First Colebrook Bank CEO Jim Tibbetts, and David Currier, owner of Bound Tree Medical in Henniker and a former state senator.

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A POWERFUL DUO. The non-profit, non-partisan ONE Campaign is returning to New Hampshire for the 2012 presidential primary campaign with two big Republican names in key roles.

We've learned that former John McCain senior adviser and Concord strategist Mike Dennehy will head the organization's activities in the state to raise awareness of 'extreme poverty and preventable disease' worldwide.

Former U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu is serving as a member of the national advisory committee of the ONE Vote program.

Sununu said the goal is to 'get the candidates talking about the need to preserve compassionate, results-driven programs that save the lives of millions suffering under extreme poverty.'

Volunteers can be expected at town halls and other campaign events to put the candidates on the record on the subject.

Dennehy will work with local field organizers Michael Castaldo of Dover and Thomas Leahy of Manchester.

The group says it already has 10,000 members in the state.

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-- Under fire nationally for his 'evolving' answers on whether he did or didn't engage in sexual harassment while heading the National Restaurant Association in the 1990s, Herman Cain will finally return to New Hampshire next Thursday to participate in a 'Constitutional Conversation' sponsored by the Granite State Patriots Liberty PAC at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College.

-- Sen. Jeanne Shaheen will join Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick to keynote the New Hampshire Democratic Party's annual Jefferson-Jackson fund-raising event Saturday at The Castleton in Windham.

-- The Republican Senate Majority PAC will honor former U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg on Sunday, Nov. 20, at a $250- to $2,000-a-person fund-raiser the Bill Binnie-owned Wentworth-by-the-Sea Country Club in Rye.

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

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