One of President Bush's closest advisers has a brutally candid analysis of the Republican nomination battle: Fred Thompson is the campaign's "biggest dud," Mitt Romney has "a real problem in the South" because people will not vote for a Mormon, Mike Huckabee's last name is too hick and John McCain could end up repeating 2000 by winning New Hampshire but losing the nomination.
Dan Bartlett, who stepped down as White House counselor in July after working nearly his entire adult life for Bush, gave those frank assessments of the Republican presidential candidates during a recent appearance before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that went unnoticed outside the room. Never before has Bartlett opened up in a public setting with such an unvarnished analysis of the race. And while he no longer formally speaks for the president, Bartlett spent 14 years channeling Bush and remains virtually his alter ego, so his views could be seen as a revealing look into the thinking within the president's inner circle.
Bartlett was harshest in his judgment of Thompson, the former Tennessee senator who jumped into the contest a month ago and faces his first televised debate today. Thompson, Bartlett said, was the "biggest dud" because he peaked last spring when he first started talking about running and since then has yet to articulate a compelling vision for why he is running. "The biggest liability was whether he had the fire in the belly to run for office in the first place and be president," Bartlett said. "So what does he do? He waits four months, fires a bunch of staff, has a big staff turnover, has a lot of backbiting, comes out with his big campaign launch and gives a very incoherent and not very concise stump speech for why he's running for president."
Bartlett held out little hope that Thompson could win the nomination. "Unless they really find a way to crystallize his message for why he's different than the other candidates, why people should take a second look now, I don't feel very good that Fred Thompson's going to be the candidate for my party," he said.
His judgment of Romney was only somewhat less negative. While crediting the former Massachusetts governor with the "best strategy and organization" born out of his "business acumen," Bartlett said "the flip-flopping on positions" stemmed from a miscalculation that the primary field would be more conservative than it proved to be. "They were trying to solidify his conservative credentials." Bartlett added: "He's getting a narrative in the national media as somebody that is too much trying to position himself, trying to hedge himself, almost too mechanical about the issues. Authenticity is going to be a very important principle in this campaign. And right now that’s their biggest danger."
The flip-flopping issue, Bartlett added, provides an outlet for another big reason why Republican voters will not back Romney -- his religion. "The Mormon issue is a real problem in the South, it's a real problem in other parts of the country," he said. "But people are not going to say it. People are not going to step out and say, 'I have a problem with Romney because he's Mormon.' What they're going to say is he's a flip-flopper. ... It's a fact, it's reality. I don't know if it's one that will keep him from becoming the nominee for the party but it's something they clearly understand they've got to deal with."
Bartlett was more sympathetic to McCain, calling him the "biggest wild card," but he clearly felt the Arizona senator who lost the nomination to Bush in 2000 still faces enormous hurdles. "He is now where he does his best," Bartlett said. "He's lean, he's mean, he's out there, he's fighting in New Hampshire. The problem's going to be it always comes down to money, money, money. He doesn't have it. The irony could be he could see this thing play out the exact same way it did in 2000. He could win in New Hampshire and not have any infrastructure or funding to maximize it in a national campaign."
As it happens, the Bush adviser was most enthusiastic about a contender who seems to have even less chance. He called Huckabee the "best candidate," one who seems to most mirror Bush's own vision of compassionate conservatism. "He is the most articulate, visionary candidate of anybody in the field," Bartlett said. Initially, he admitted, he was perplexed that the former Arkansas governor was running. "But the more I watch him, the more impressed I become." When it comes to advocating conservative positions on social issues, "he does it in a very positive, optimistic way."
But Huckabee probably cannot win, Bartlett added. "He's got the obvious problems -- being from Hope, Ark., and, quite frankly, having the last name 'Huckabee,'" he said. "I hate to be so light about it, but it is, it's an issue. Politics can be fickle like that. I mean, you're trying to get somebody's attention for the first time. ... 'Huckabee? You've got to be kidding me! Hope, Arkansas? Here we go again.'"
The only top-tier candidate Bartlett did not criticize was Rudy Giuliani, whom he credited with the "best message," particularly because the former New York mayor has kept his focus on attacking Democrats, not fellow Republicans, which serves as an effective distraction from his own liberal positions on guns, gays and abortion. "He's doing it particularly with Hillary," Bartlett said. "There's headlines the other day. He wants to engage in this debate. And there's a very practical aspect of it because if he's engaged with the Democrats, he's not engaged on ... his own positions, whatever those that would not be very receptive in a typical Republican primary."
For all that, Bartlett declined to make a prediction about who would win the nomination, although he seemed to lean toward Giuliani. "Republicans, I believe, are terrified about losing the presidency after losing Congress," he said. "I think this is going to be the season of the pragmatic Republican voter. That bodes well for Rudy and it gives McCain a shot because I think people feel McCain can go toe-to-toe with Hillary in the general election."
Bartlett, who was at the heart of two presidential campaigns, gave his appraisal during a Sept. 13 joint appearance with former Democratic National Committee chairman Terence McAuliffe, campaign chairman for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), the Democratic presidential frontrunner. Bartlett was taking on the role in a regular tandem act once played by former Republican National Committee chairman Ed Gillespie, who succeeded him as White House counselor. It was Bartlett's first public speech since leaving the White House and video excerpts, of it are posted on the Web site of Leading Authorities, the speakers bureau that arranges his appearances ($10,000 to $20,000 for speeches in town, $20,000 to $30,000 for out of town events).
Bartlett began his presentation by noting that after so many years on someone else's payroll, he finally feels "a little liberated." Certainly seems so.
© 2007 The Washington Post Company