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Jul 15, 2016 4:56 PM

Steinhauser: GOP gubernatorial showdown getting heated

NH1 News Political Director

CONCORD – With less than two months to go until primary day, the race for New Hampshire’s GOP gubernatorial nomination is turning into a four way fistfight.

And the first debate between the major candidates is more than enough proof that the war of words is getting as hot as the summer temperatures.

Three-term Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, who enjoys the best name recognition among the Republican contenders and is considered the favorite at this state of the race, was expected to come under attack from his rivals, and those expectations were more than met.

WATCH: NH1 News coverage of GOP gubernatorial debate

State Rep. Frank Edelblut, the conservative first-term lawmaker who is the least well known candidate but who’s quickly energizing activists on the right, criticized Sununu minutes into the start of Thursday night’s debate at Windham High School.

Edelblut zeroed in on Sununu’s stance as a candidate to supports abortion rights.

“I would challenge chris as well because the platform is very specific about life,” Edleblut said, answering a question about the NHGOP’s platform.

A few minutes later, Sununu’s recent high profile swing vote on the Executive Council to restore state funding for Planned Parenthood of Northern New England, which is opposed by many conservatives, was on the docket. The candidates were asked if as governor, the would sign a bill prohibiting such funding. Edelblut, state Sen. Jeanie Forrester and Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas all said yes, with Sununu answering “if there are no options for quality health care, no.”

'Gimmicky plans'

Sununu introduced his economic plan the day before the debate. The New Hampshire Democratic Party described the proposal as “far-right talking points” which consist “of little more than red meat for the Republican base.”

But Forrester, the conservative lawmaker from Meredith, had a vastly different opinion, saying “I have to say when I saw that plan I thought it might have been written by Maggie Hassan.”

The line become one of the most talked about moments in the debate.

Sununu quickly responded, asking “what part was that.”

“All of it,” Forrester shot back.

Following the debate, NH1 News asked Forrester about Sununu’s plan, pointing out that it’s doubtful Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan (who’s running for the U.S. Senate against incumbent Republican Kelly Ayotte) would include a push for a Right to Work law and language calling to repeal and replace Obamacare.

“He also talked about spending more money on infrastructure,” Forrester said. “There were some things in the plan that really didn't sound like a Republican plan and that's what I was referring to.”

While Forrester criticized Sununu’s proposals, Edelblut took on all of his rivals, saying “we have structural problems that won't be fixed by gimmicky plans that politicians tend to create.”

That comment incited spirited responses from Gatsas and Forrester.

Later, Gatsas told NH1 News “Rep. Edelblut doesn't have any ways that he's going to solve problems. You tell me one answer that he gave you that you feel comfortable to a solution to a problem."

“He has no plans. He has not come up with an economic plan, or a government reform plan or a plan for the heroin and opioid epidemic,” Forrester added. “When somebody doesn't have a plan they tend to lash out at other people.”

Common Core Clash

Some of the biggest fireworks came late in the debate, when the candidates argued over the Common Core educational standards, which are fiercely opposed by many on the right.

Standing next to Sununu, Gatsas said “when somebody stands here and says they support choice, but yet they vote to fund Common Core, that's a big question. And counselor Sununu voted to fund Common Core.

Sununu shot back at Gatsas, saying “there's no one standing on this stage that dislikes Common Core, Smarter Balance testing more than I do. And I take real offense to that.”

Sununu explained his vote, saying “I’m not going to play a game of financial chicken with our kids in these schools. I’m not going to do what did we say. we were very clear. We told the department of education that they better come back with a system designed by New Hampshire.”

Edelblut then jumped in to the fight, criticizing both Sununu and Gatsas over the issue.

Asked following the debate if we’ll see a very aggressive Edleblut going forward, the candidate responded “I just think it's important for the people of New Hampshire to know the facts going into the election. So I don’t' really call that aggression. I call that making sure that we have all the information out on the table so people can make an informed decision about who they want to lead this state.”

In an apparent sign of his growing strength with conservative Republican activists, Edleblut easily won a straw poll of those who attended the debate.

“This debate was about establishing the battle lines for the next two months. Ted Gatsas and Chris Sununu are fighting over the more establishment and moderate groups, Jeanie Forrester is focusing on the conservative base and Frank Edelblut is working to consolidate both the conservative and libertarian aspects of the Republican primary electorate," Greg Moore, state director for Americans for Prosperity in New Hampshire told NH1 News.

"The real takeaway was the crowd – who could turn out their supporters on a hot Thursday in July. That speaks to the kind of enthusiasm that these candidates are creating in the grassroots. By that measure, the night was a huge win for Edelblut. The real question is if he can convert that fervor among the activists into broad support across the state," added Moore, who's staying neutral in the GOP nomination battle.

The race for the Corner Office isn’t grabbing a lot of headlines right now. It’s summertime, and most people other than engaged activists have checked out from politics. And those who are tuned in can quickly get distracted by the star power of the White House race and New Hampshire’s blockbuster U.S. Senate battle.

It’s a shame, because the race for the Corner Office is turning into a very compelling contest.

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