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February 13. 2014 9:51PM

Fergus Cullen: Hassan's lousy speech left only her smiling

Man, what a lousy speech Gov. Maggie Hassan gave the other day. To say her first State of the State address was mostly air is to insult meringue cookies. To call her delivery flat and wooden is to insult dining room tables. To observe there was no energy in the audience, even among her fellow Democrats, is to insult dead batteries. The captive legislators who had to listen to it would have wasted less time had they broken out smart phones and played Angry Birds for the hour while she filibustered. It was that awful.

Rotarians and annual dinner attendees should dread these words: "Keynoted by Gov. Maggie Hassan."

I've been going to State of the State addresses since the Merrill administration. Whatever strengths governors have had since then, none have been charismatic or more than serviceable orators. But at least Gov. Shaheen talked about things she'd fight for. Gov. Benson articulated core principles that organized his approach to governing. Gov. Lynch was always generous about sharing credit.

The New Hampshire governor's office is designed to be weak, checked by two-year terms, an inherited cabinet, and the Executive Council that approves contracts and confirms appointments. A governor's real power comes down to the power to persuade. There are few occasions as good as a State of the State address for a governor to use the bully pulpit, but Gov. Hassan made nothing of the opportunity.

Here's an example of one of the many bricks Gov. Hassan laid in her speech: "Thank you to Senator Rausch for leading efforts to take an important step toward addressing our transportation needs."

Jim Rausch, a Derry Republican, is sponsoring a bill that would raise the state gas tax by four cents and allow the tax to rise with inflation. Not that you'd know the substance of the bill from Gov. Hassan's address, or where she stood on the issue. She was too chicken to say "gas tax" let alone "I think we need to raise it." It was left to New Hampshire Public Radio host Laura Knoy to call the governor on her vague dodge during Monday's broadcast of The Exchange. After some bobbing and weaving, Gov. Hassan finally said she'd sign Rausch's bill if the Legislature passes it.

This bold leadership comes from a governor who has a healthy 51 percent approval rating in the latest Granite State Poll conducted by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, with 21 percent disapproving of her job performance.

Nor is Gov. Hassan exactly under political pressure in this election year, at least not yet. Her only announced opponent, Andrew Hemingway of Bristol, is known by just eight percent of voters, according to the UNH poll.

The elephant in the Republican room — or rather, the elephant not in that room — is the absence of credible Republican statewide candidates. State Senate Majority Leader Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, candidly acknowledged the GOP's chicken and egg problem to WMUR's Josh McElveen last weekend. If Scott Brown runs for U.S. Senate, other candidates will be emboldened to run for other offices including governor, Bradley suggested.

But what if Brown declines to run? One scenario is that Republican candidates running statewide at the top of the ticket for governor and U.S. Senate could struggle to reach 40 percent. Or do worse. We've had recent elections (2006, 2008) where Republican gubernatorial candidates got less than 30 percent of the vote, and the down-ballot impact was carnage. It's very hard for even well-liked incumbent legislators to run 10 points ahead of the top of their ticket, let alone 15 or 20 points.

Meanwhile, the 13 member, one-seat majority caucus of GOP state senators, by all rational measures a conservative bunch and all that stands in the way of one-party rule in Concord, hear persistent rumors that 11 of their number can expect primary challenges from yet more conservative opponents drawn from the Tea Party/Libertarian/Free State/Ron Paul wing of the party.

If that faction is disappointed with the emerging compromise on Medicaid, wait until they see what a Democratic majority will ram through a year from now.

Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, is a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. He can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com and followed on Twitter @FergusCullen.


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