BOSTON (AP) -- Former Massachusetts Sen. Scott Brown is exploring a U.S. Senate bid in New Hampshire as high-profile Republicans from across the country gather in the state with an eye on the 2016 presidential contest.
Friday marks the first day of the two-day Northeast Republican Leadership Conference, which features prospective presidential candidates and other GOP heavyweights looking to court New Hampshire voters and put their stamp on party affairs. Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a 2012 presidential candidate, and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal headline Friday's speaking program.
Brown's interest in a Senate campaign against New Hampshire's first-term Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen may overshadow the weekend event in Nashua.
Brown has begun seeking campaign staff while aggressively courting New Hampshire elected officials and key GOP activists in recent weeks. At the same time, his camp has begun offering paid positions to Republican operatives for a prospective New Hampshire campaign.
The longtime Massachusetts resident, having recently relocated to his seacoast New Hampshire vacation home, is expected to launch an exploratory committee to enter the race as soon as Friday, according to several New Hampshire Republican officials who spoke directly to Brown about his plans. The move officially allows him to begin raising money and hiring staff. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly disclose his plans before an official announcement.
Brown, who did not return requests for comment on Thursday, was scheduled to address the conference Friday afternoon.
Several people involved in the discussions about Brown's future said some in the GOP establishment remain skeptical, given the former Republican senator's recent track record. Brown, 54, angered Massachusetts Republicans last year after indicating he would run in the state's special U.S. Senate election, only to change his mind late in the process.
"He's been reaching out to opinion leaders, to grass-roots activists, getting a sense of, 'Would you be supporting a Scott Brown campaign?"' said former New Hampshire Rep. Frank Guinta, who is running again for Congress and was included in Brown's outreach efforts. "That, to me, says he's serious. But I think only Scott Brown knows if Scott Brown is going to run."
Democrats scoffed at a prospective Brown candidacy, noting that he is also considering a 2016 presidential campaign. He is set to visit Iowa later in the month.
"Scott Brown is for Scott Brown and the powerful interests that back him, not New Hampshire," said Harrell Kirstein, spokesman for the state Democratic Party. "So when he gets back from his next trip to Iowa, he'll find himself in a tough Republican primary against Republicans who are actually from New Hampshire. If he survives that, he'll face an even tougher general election against Jeanne Shaheen."
Shaheen, a former governor, was widely expected to win her first re-election test in November before Brown began hinting late last year that he might cross state lines to challenge her. National Democrats already have their hands full defending more vulnerable Democratic incumbents across the country as they fight to retain their six-seat Senate majority.
While recent polls give Shaheen a solid lead in a prospective matchup, Brown's near-universal name recognition in a state that shares a media market with Massachusetts and his national fundraising network would make him a serious contender should he enter the race.
Democrats and their allies already are preparing for a worst-case scenario, having spent roughly $360,000 on television advertising against Brown in recent weeks. Conservative critics spent heavily to weaken Shaheen earlier in the year, led by the tea party ally Americans for Prosperity, which spent roughly $700,000 on television ads knocking Shaheen's support for President Barack Obama's health care overhaul.
Brown shocked the political world and rose to national prominence by winning the 2010 special election to replace the late Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy, but he was soundly defeated in his first re-election test against Sen. Elizabeth Warren in 2012.
In the meantime, Brown continues his role as a paid contributor for Fox News, renewing his contract less than a month ago. The news network has previously cut ties with Republicans when it became clear they were seriously considering running for office.