CONCORD, N.H. -- As Republican Bob Smith explained his decision to run for his old U.S. Senate seat last week, a supporter standing next to him quipped, "Bill Clinton isn't the only Comeback Kid!"
There's a big difference, of course, from bouncing back from a faltering campaign as Clinton did before the 1992 New Hampshire presidential primary and returning to the Senate more than a decade after leaving both the office and the state. But if Smith, 72, manages to win the GOP primary and defeat Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen, he wouldn't be the first to return to the Senate after an absence of 10 or more years.
Such comebacks are hardly common, however. According to the U.S. Senate Historical Office, 32 senators have done it, including one from New Hampshire: Levi Woodbury of Portsmouth, who served as a Jacksonian from 1825 to 1831 and as a Democrat from 1841 to 1845. In between, he served as secretary of the Navy and secretary of the Treasury.
The most recent example is Sen. Dan Coats, R-Ind., who served from 1989 to 1999 and was elected again in 2010. Before Coats, no one else had done it since 1931, when Sen. Thomas Gore, D-Okla., returned after 10 years and Sen. James Lewis, D-Ill., returned after 12 years.
According to state records, two other New Hampshire senators also served nonconsecutive terms, though they had much shorter gaps in service. Charles Atherton, a Democrat from Nashua, served from 1843 to 1849 and died eight months after starting his second term in 1853. John Hale of Dover, elected as a Free Soil candidate, served from 1847 to 1853 and returned in 1855 to fill the vacancy caused by Atherton's death.
Comebacks are more common in the House - 11 New Hampshire representatives have served nonconsecutive terms, most recently Republican Charlie Bass, who lost the 2nd District seat in 2006 and got it back in 2010, and 1st District Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, who won election to her third term in 2012, two years after being ousted.
Asked about his long absence, Smith noted that he spent several months each year in New Hampshire after moving to Florida and always considered New Hampshire his home. But Andy Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, said he faces significant challenges.
"He had his chance for a comeback, and it didn't work out so well for him in 2002 after he left the party and came back," said Andy Smith, who has no relation to Bob Smith.
In a span of a few months in 1999, Bob Smith ran for president, dropped out of the Republican Party, became an independent, ended his presidential campaign and returned to the GOP. After three terms in the U.S. House and two in the Senate, Smith lost the 2002 primary to John E. Sununu, who went on to win the seat. Shaheen defeated Sununu in 2008.
The Republican activists who will dominate the primary election will remember Smith's departure from the GOP and will be disinclined to forgive him, Andy Smith said. And he's largely unknown to general election voters. According to a recent poll the survey center did for WMUR-TV, more than half of voters have never heard of the former senator. A second poll, conducted by Suffolk University, found a quarter of voters hadn't heard of him and another quarter didn't know enough about him to have an opinion.
That may not be surprising given that New Hampshire is a mobile state, with considerable turnover of its electorate. Nearly a third of those eligible to vote in New Hampshire in 2008 had either turned 18 or moved into the state since 2000, according to census figures, and Andy Smith estimates nearly half the electorate has changed since 2002.
"I think the bigger problem he's got is a lot of his supporters are the older Republicans in the state, and they've either moved out or died," he said.