The so-called invisible primary for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination momentarily shifts to Washington, DC for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference beginning Thursday. But soon, all eyes will be on New Hampshire (and Iowa and South Carolina). We figured it would be a worthwhile effort to profile the advantages and disadvantages of each potential Republican hopeful from a New Hampshire perspective.
There are no perfect Republican candidates, Ronald Reagan notwithstanding, and each candidate in the current crop of hopefuls brings strengths and weaknesses with them to the Granite State. The trick is to magnify your strengths and overcome your weaknesses, either by disguising them or turning them into positives. One caveat before we profile the hopefuls: New Hampshire is unlike other states. We are very independent and expect straight, honest answers to real issues. We are rarely hypnotized by fancy talk and wedge issues du jour. So a candidate’s perceived strength in some other part of the country might be a weakness here.
And now…the list:
Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour is one of the most amiable politicians in the country. He is also a strategic genius who engineered the two biggest Republican electoral tidal waves in recent political history, the ’94 Republican Revolution and the ’10 GOP gubernatorial drubbing. He is a conservative who can talk about conservative issues in a non-threatening way, which could open avenues for him among Republican leaning independents. And his legendary fundraising prowess will be a great advantage and allow him to swiftly get up to speed with better-known candidates.
Candidates from the Deep South have been few and far between in the Republican race for President and it remains to be seen whether Granite Staters will look past Barbour’s southern drawl. Though, on the Democratic side, the Bill Clinton model certainly stands out as a potential template for Barbour. We prefer straight answers to southern charm and Barbour will want to tailor his approach to New Hampshire Republicans accordingly.
There is no audience for racial politics in the Granite State so any and all talk of White Citizens’ Councils or Mississippi’s uniquely disturbing racialist past will be a severe net negative for Barbour. His fiscal record as governor may come under some scrutiny as the libertarian Cato Institute has given Barbour mixed reviews over the years. Finally, expect Haley Barbour’s former lobbying clients to come under a microscope and this will give his competition an added talking point when contrasting themselves.
Newt is the only potential presidential prospective that every NH primary voter knows by first name. But Speaker Gingrich brings more to the table then just name ID. He is the idea machine of the current 2012 class and many in the political world still look to him for guidance on policy issues. His success in leading the 1994 republican revolution is well known and his famed Contract with America is still discussed and imitated by campaigns across the nation.
After leaving Congress, he turned his passion for ideas and history into almost four-dozen best selling books and his think tank has been a leading advocate for health care solutions that work while preserving individual’s rights and protecting the patient-doctor relationship.
While he does have detractors, most would agree that he has the singular ability to frame the debate with Obama in the most advantageous way. Newt is like a jolt of energy, a beacon of ideas and audacious thinker.
And given his previous flirtations with a presidential bid, he has many friends in the Granite State. Most people remember when he came to Moose Alley in 1995 with then Congressman Bill Zeliff in hopes of seeing a moose. And his joint Town Hall meeting with President Bill Clinton in Claremont, NH will forever be an historical occasion for Granite Staters.
Love him or hate him, Newt brings out the opinions of people who don’t even live and breathe politics. While it may not be discussed in the public domain, his personal life will always be a problem due to his two divorces and his admitted affair with a congressional staffer. Newt appears to have addressed these issues while straightening up his personal life and his conversion to Catholicism and his contrition while meeting with values leaders seem genuine.
His lack of experience in a national campaign and the fact that it’s been years since he was a candidate himself likely becomes a negative, because he can’t run as the ‘outsider’ and he can’t benefit from recent election success. Finally, perhaps his biggest challenge is raising the money to compete in the long run. Newt has shown that he can run a powerful non-profit organization but can that success be transferred into individual donations that equal well over $100 million? Time will tell.
Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee is very well liked in New Hampshire. His appeal on social issues is undeniable and his ability to communicate effectively with large audiences is without question. If Huckabee decides to run he will discover his brief star turn into a television personality on the FOX News Channel has only helped to endear him to a broader audience. Huckabee has also shown himself to be a heavyweight debater. He is that rare politician, it seems, that the more people get to know him, the more they like him. Huckabee’s biggest strength in the Granite State, should he decide to run, will be his willingness to side with Democrats on the occasional issue, something Granite State independents will see as the mark of a reasonable consensus builder.
Like Barbour, Huckabee will need to demonstrate to Granite State voters that he is not just a southern candidate. Frequent visits and a stump speech with fewer southern colloquialisms would be two good places to start. And just as his ability to agree with Democrats occasionally will win him points with independents, it will stoke the ire of the resurgent grassroots conservatives in the Granite State. Huckabee’s fiscal record as Governor of Arkansas, where he was something less than a supply side tax cutter, will leave him vulnerable to attacks before an extremely anti-tax GOP electorate in New Hampshire.
The experience that Jon Huntsman brings to the table is a good blend for a presidential candidate: White House staff assistant in the Reagan Administration, Deputy Commerce Secretary and Ambassador to Singapore in the George H.W. Bush Administration, US Trade Representative in the George W. Bush Administration and a popular two term Governor in Utah. He also has business experience as an executive in the family’s billion-dollar Huntsman Corporation and as the CEO of The Huntsman Family Holdings Company.
Most recently, he has served as Ambassador to China in the Obama Administration. Huntsman’s background gives him the potential to be a strong presidential candidate and his family’s wealth and connections across the country will likely provide him the necessary funding to compete with the top tier candidates for the Republican nomination.
As an unknown to Granite Staters, Huntsman is generally considered conservative on fiscal issues as is illustrated by his record as Governor, but he is already characterized as the moderate in the field should he run for President. He has taken strong stands against conservative and even mainstream Republicans in many areas including social issues. He is a strong believer in fighting climate change and favors cap and trade, he is in favor of comprehensive immigration reform and a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, and he believes that the Republican Party needs to moderate its position on gay rights. Huntsman’s biggest challenge, however, is convincing voters that service as Obama’s Ambassador to China and embracing the Obama stimulus provides the necessary contrast as the Republican nominee in a general election against his former boss.
Sarah Palin is a national force to be reckoned with. But New Hampshire is a bit of an anomaly for Sarah Palin. She remains very popular with Republicans and many officials and activists are yearning for her to visit and run for President. Palin has the obvious experience as Governor of a small (population), cold state and can make that comparison and connection to New Hampshire voters. She talks the talk and walks the walk on issues near and dear to Republican Primary voters: taxes, spending, guns, abortion, health care, and energy.
Palin is a true conservative’s conservative and if she runs and campaigns aggressively in New Hampshire she has the ability to do very well. In addition, she is the titular leader of the most energetic movement in the country – the Tea Party. Finally, whether it is fair or not, the national and local media love the Palin narrative and they will cover her 24/7 giving her a tremendous advantage over her competition.
While Palin is not an “unknown” in the traditional political sense of that term, virtually no Granite State Republicans have a meaningful relationship with her the way they do, say, Mitt Romney. As the old joke goes, a guy walks into the barbershop and the barber asks him if he is going to vote or John McCain for President and guy says “I don’t know yet, I’ve only met him three times.”
Palin’s grassroots campaigning skills have yet to be proven. Since she became a national figure as the Republican nominee for Vice President she has only dropped into states and held rallies with thousands of people. If she runs, Palin will need to master the practice of holding town hall meetings, campaigning on Main Street, and attending house parties with crowds of 50-100 people. And while the economy remains the top issue, right now anyway, Palin will also need to prove to voters that she can be the leader of the free world by having a strong grasp of foreign policy.
The former Minnesota Governor has already shown a willingness to visit New Hampshire often, help local Republican candidates, and field frequent, direct and pointed questions from voters – all things that pay huge dividends and gain tremendous respect in the Granite State. He has attracted local talent to his embryonic campaign and considerable interest among activists. His fiscal record has generally received positive marks and may be his strongest asset with New Hampshire skinflints. His understated social conservatism strikes the right balance to win over conservative activists and independents alike.
Pawlenty has earned goodwill but no groundswell in New Hampshire. There is almost no one in the Granite State chomping at the bit for him to announce anytime soon. When the state begins to fill up with presidential hopefuls, Pawlenty may struggle for something new and interesting to say and a big Palin/Romney clash or a new “flavor of the day” candidate could easily drown him out. The “too nice” whispers have followed him to New Hampshire. Without owning a single, compelling issue, he might struggle to cobble together a winning coalition. His previous flirtations with cap and trade legislation will anger Tea Party activists.
Mitt Romney has the ability to raise, and has shown the willingness to spend, millions from his deep pockets and through his powerful rolodex. Mitt Romney is very well known in New Hampshire having spent almost the last eight years on the TV sets in homes throughout the state as the former Massachusetts Governor and former candidate for President.
Since coming up short in 2008 the Governor and his wife Anne, have been splitting their time living in Wolfeboro, NH and out on the pacific coast in Southern California. The Romney’s are everyday folks in Wolfeboro, walking around the village, and having their boats serviced at the local marina. In fact, at the local annual 4th of July parade he was spotted being father and granddad just watching and enjoying the parade instead of leading it. Another key asset is his family, they all seem to weigh in on the campaign trail and they are regularly visible in his NH effort.
Romney has done more events in NH since 2008 than any other potential candidate. As a result, Mitt Romney has legions of local supporters. He is always well received and has loyal supporters who he knows on a first name basis and they will be there for Mitt when the bugle calls. Finally, expect the 2012 Romney to stress his successful business background and his ability to fix the economy.
Romney is the clear frontrunner in New Hampshire and no presidential candidate in recent memory has been able to sustain a 30-40 point lead, let alone win the New Hampshire Primary. His undeniable vulnerability is RomneyCare. Note the recent rewrite of his campaign biography, which has gone through considerable edits in an effort to erase his earlier braggadocios on this issue. Conservative activists have begun comparing Romney’s health care law to ObamaCare on a national level. When activists, and even Romney supporters, discuss his challenges ahead, the first words out of their mouths are Romney’s Health Plan. Romney’s failure to address this issue adequately is what many believe is a ‘silver bullet’. What’s more, the powerful New Hampshire Union Leader has had harsh things to say about the law, and it’s author, in the recent past.
In addition, Romney’s problems of 2008 haven’t disappeared and his flip-flops on key issues with the Republican base will undoubtedly continue to dog him throughout. Importantly, his perceived plastic demeanor may be off-putting to voters from the famously retail campaign state. Finally, Romney’s top New Hampshire supporters in 2008 say they are currently ‘free agents’: National Co-Chair and former US Senator Judd Gregg, Ovide Lamontagne, and his 2008 State Chairman Bruce Keough are leaving their options open. And a significant former Romney supporter, Claira Monier, recently signed on with Rick Santorum as a top leader in his fledgling campaign.
The former Pennsylvania Senator appears to be the type of candidate that will do well in the Granite State. A good-looking young personable conservative, he is taking the state seriously, visiting often and working hard at the grassroots level. In the words of one NH voter, Santorum is “Mitt Romney with a soul.” Santorum’s solid pro-life credentials certainly mean that social conservatives in the state will give him a solid look. So far, he has been making all the right moves, hiring veteran GOP operative Mike Biundo to run his campaign and cozying up with conservative stalwart Ovide Lamontagne.
Santorum’s biggest challenge is also his biggest strength – he is seen as a social conservative. While this is not necessarily a negative in NH, history tells us those candidates who are only seen as social conservatives do not fare well here as they might in Iowa. New Hampshire voters know their choice has a good shot at running the country and they want to know they are also strong on economic and foreign policy issues. Santorum has yet to demonstrate gravitas outside the social arena. New Hampshire Republicans are not attracted to one trick ponies and they want someone who can win in November. Santorum’s Senate reelection drubbing will not go unnoticed.