WASHINGTON, Sept. 13, 2010 — -- Voters in New Hampshire Tuesday will deliver a verdict in the hotly contested, four-way GOP Senate primary that has become a battle over the purity of conservative values and the latest test of the influence of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party.
Former state Attorney General Kelly Ayotte, a darling of the party establishment and one of Palin's "mama grizzlies," has been the steady frontrunner. But a flurry of late-race attack ads and high-profile endorsements of her opponents may have Ayotte in trouble.
Several pre-primary polls show her once-sizable lead has shrunk to single digits. And now Palin, who first endorsed Ayotte in July but has kept a low profile in the race since, has reentered the fray with a robocall message Sunday supporting her.
"Kelly is one tough "Granite Grizzly" who has broken barriers, fought off and locked up criminals, and stood up for New Hampshire families," Palin says. "She's the true conservative running for the U.S. Senate in New Hampshire."
But Tea Party groups, the state's largest newspaper -- the Union Leader -- and prominent conservative Sen. Jim DeMint see a different candidate as the "true conservative" in the race.
They've endorsed Ovide Lamontagne, the former gubernatorial candidate running a shoestring campaign, who has surged in recent weeks to become the latest Tea Party threat to an establishment-backed candidate.
"He's a proven conservative," DeMint tweeted of Lamontagne Friday.
Meanwhile, businessman Bill Binnie, who has poured millions of dollars of his own money into the race, is casting himself as the most fiscally conservative Republican; and angling toward independent voters with socially moderate views who support abortion rights.
"You know I am a conservative," Binnie, 53, told ABC News' "Top Line" Friday, "but that also means that I believe in individual rights and small government and I don't think there's a role for the United States federal government in any of these issues of health care or our own individual reproductive rights."
Ayotte, Lamontagne, Binnie and businessman Jim Bender, who's considered a long-shot, are all vying to succeed outgoing Sen. Judd Gregg for a seat the GOP has held for 30 years. The winner will face Democrat Rep. Paul Hodes in November.
State GOP party leaders are hoping Ayotte can pull off the win: Polling of a head-to-head, match-up with Hodes shows Ayotte with a 10-point lead. But if Lamontagne were to be the nominee, Hodes, at least for now, appears to come out ahead.
Neither scenario seems to concern Hodes, who believes he's in good position ahead of November. "Whoever wins tomorrow, they share an extreme far-right radical agenda," he said on "Top Line" Monday. "It's not a policy position that the independent voters of New Hampshire, who care about fiscal responsibilities, integrity, and independence are really going to cotton up to."
New Hampshire Tends to Break Late
"This will be an election about turnout," St. Anselm College political scientist Jennifer Lucas said. "If there's a high turnout, Ayotte will do well. ... If there's a low turnout, I don't know that Lamontagne will catch Ayotte but he'll have a shot at making a run at her."
Ayotte, 42, a mother of two and wife of an Iraq War veteran, has run on her background as a tough prosecutor and Granite State mom, but she has been attacked by Binnie and Bender as a hand-picked party insider with questionable ethics and conservative credentials.
Her critics have raised questions about her claim of "victory" in an abortion case brought to the Supreme Court that was actually settled at a cost of $300,000 to taxpayers and her role in a Ponzi scheme case that was insufficiently investigated by her office.
Conservatives also have derided some of what they see as Ayotte's moderate positions on the stimulus, enforcement of immigration law and endorsement of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
But those hard-hitting attacks, seen largely in a barrage of TV ads among Binnie, Ayotte and Democrat Paul Hodes, have created an opening for Lamontagne, 52, who has managed to remain above the fray.
"Whether you agree with his politics or not, everyone who knows him or meets him likes him," said Andrews, the political scientist. "And he refuses to go negative. He's definitely surging."
Binnie and Ayotte have spent more than $1 million each and have plenty of cash on hand for the final stretch, according to their most recent Federal Election Commission filings. And while Lamontagne has spent about $200,000 so far, aides said, the grassroots contributions are continuing to flow in.
"New Hampshire primary voters are notoriously independent; they don't want to be told by Washington, party bosses or big money people who to vote for," Lamontagne said on "Top Line."
Voters may be only now seriously considering their choice for the nomination, making the next 24 hours a crucial campaign stretch, campaign aides from all four camps said.
"You don't take the voters for granted and try to convince them a year out that, 'this is your only choice,'" a Lamontagne aide said. "New Hampshire always breaks late. Voters take their time, and they're making up their minds right now."