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NRO’s Robert Costa and Hugh Analyze the GOP Veepstakes

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HH: Joined now as we start the third hour by Robert Costa, political reporter for National Review. Hello, Robert, how are you?

RC: Hey, good to join you, Hugh.

HH: Robert, last time we got together on Twitter, we were debating the merits of Chris Christie. And it kind of went on for a little bit, and then I haven’t picked it up, I haven’t talked to you since then. The merits of Chris Christie as vice president – I want to dive right in. Where is your thinking now on the second slot for Mitt Romney?

RC: You know, Hugh, I’ve been thinking about Chris Christie for a long time. And so I told my boss, Rich Lowry at National Review, and I wanted to spend a few days in New Jersey just going to Chris Christie town halls, meeting with New Jersey conservatives, to try to dive a little deeper and see who Chris Christie really is. And what I found is someone who is really ready to be a vice presidential contender. He could fit well with Mitt Romney. First of all, I’ve heard from all Romney’s people that they click on a personal level. And more importantly than that, Chris Christie has an effective presentation style, he is pugnacious, he is popular, he is conservative in many respects, but he’s not too conservative. He does irk a lot of conservatives on guns, on immigration, and a few other issues. But broadly speaking, he has wide appeal, and a lot of suburban types were cheering him on at the town hall I was with him at last week.

HH: Now Two questions immediately arise, one obvious, one not so obvious. The first obvious one is does he put New Jersey into play if he’s on the ticket? That seems like a big mountain to climb.

RC: It’s a huge mountain to climb. It’s a deep blue state, and it’s a presidential election year. And as any conservative strategist in the Northeast will tell you, winning New Jersey in a presidential election year is nearly impossible. But if anyone can put it in play, it’s Chris Christie. He won in a tough 2009 atmosphere. Jon Corzine had the support of the President and all of the Democratic activists around the country, and he was able to beat him. It’ll be tough, but I think Chris Christie would put it in play.

HH: The not so obvious question is he’s very close to the Philadelphia media market. How does Chris Christie play across the river in Philadelphia and its suburbs? Does he make an impact there that would feed into the Romney Keystone State strategy of appealing to the otherwise illiterate Iggles fans?

RC: (laughing) Regardless of your Eagles slam right there, Hugh, I have to say if you want to talk about putting New Jersey into play, maybe when it comes to Chris Christie. But you’re hitting on a key point that he would put Southeastern Pennsylvania in play. For instance, guys like Mike Fitzpatrick, moderate Republican Congressman from the Southeast side of Pennsylvania, they used Chris Christie in 2010 to win tight elections in that region of the country. Chris Christie plays very well in that Trenton area that goes all the way to Bucks County, Philadelphia, Eagles land as you say. And he’s the kind of guy who could come in, he’s a soccer dad, but he’s tough. And he had the Ed Rendell type of appeal. He’s that same kind of personality, but on the Republican side, that really goes well in Pennsylvania. And I would argue that Chris Christie, more than even perhaps a Pat Toomey, would help the Republicans win Pennsylvania.

HH: I’m talking with Robert Costa of National Review Online. I think he’s one of the preeminent young political reporters out there. So I’m going to test out my theory of Romney on the vice presidency on you, Robert. He was in this position in 2008. He had run for the prize, he had earned his credentials as a governor, and yet John McCain passed him over after a long and difficult process that was somewhat embarrassing for everyone involved. This time around, as a result, I expect it to be very dignified, very low key, very not public. And I also think he going to tend to favor the people who look like he looked in 2008, and I think that issue set – governor, experienced and been under the scrutiny, limits us really to Pawlenty, Christie and Jeb Bush.

RC: I think you’re onto something, Hugh. If anything I learned from covering Mitt Romney this cycle is that his team is disciplined. And for him to tap longtime advisor, Beth Myers, to run his vice presidential search, it says a lot. And so does the addition of Ed Gillespie, former RNC chairman, to his senior team. They are going to look at people like Jeb Bush, like Rob Portman – mild-mannered, conservative, fiscal hawks who are also social conservatives, who have the business mind, business smarts, come out of perhaps a business background, or at least a working-class background, that would add a little bit of difference to the ticket. I think Romney’s whole process, you’re not…it’s going to be less fun for guys like us, Hugh. We’re not going to be able to look for too many surprises, because I think Romney is going to be very studious and serious about how he pursues a vice presidential nominee. And we’re not going to see an outsider like Sarah Palin. And I was talking to some Romney people the other day, trying to fish for some information, and I was talking with people like Meg Whitman, who’s a business leader, close friends with Romney, but kind of an outside political figure, a little bit of an outside pick for VP, and they pushed that off a bit. Someone like Meg Whitman perhaps can work in a Romney administration, but I think it’s going to be a very short list, and it’s going to come down to people who are serious-minded like Romney, who have wide appeal, and perhaps can geographically help like Portman, but more, it’s going to be like Bill Clinton picking Al Gore in 1992. Pick someone to reinforce the strengths of the nominee rather than contrast and get something else.

HH: Well, that brings us to the two former governors. When Romney ran, he was a former governor the first time. And Tim Pawlenty is a former governor who has run, and Jeb Bush, of course, a former governor who’s been around four, five, six presidential campaigns, actually, a deeply experienced, unflappable, greatly loved by the conservative base. I had a Republican congressman tell me last week we’re praying for Jeb Bush. And so talk to us a little bit about these two, and especially about, you know, in the Bush world, loyalty mattered a great deal. I believe that loyalty matters to Mitt Romney a lot. Tim Pawlenty has been there every day since he dropped out. So has Chris Christie, Jeb Bush not so much. How does that L word play into the selection process?

RC: I think loyalty matters a lot to Romney, and so does winning. Remember, Rob Portman helped Romney win Ohio. Romney only won Ohio by 10,000. 6,000 of those 10,000 votes came out of the Cincinnati area. Tim Pawlenty, he’s a very viable vice presidential contender, but he didn’t help Romney win Minnesota. It was very tough for Romney in Minnesota. So you wonder in Romney camp whether Tim Pawlenty will help you carry a place like Minnesota. Perhaps he could, but losing Minnesota hurt his value in the vice presidential sweepstakes. Jeb Bush, privately, from everything I hear from Bush world, he’s really pushing for Marco Rubio to be on the ticket. He does not seem to be interested. He’s very much involved with his educational activities and endeavors in Florida right now, does not seem to be interested in being on a national ticket. But I also hear that Bush 41, the father, is of course very pro-having Jeb on the ticket, and that means a lot in Bush circles, where people who are familiar with the Bush family and the Bush campaigns of the past. So I think Jeb is definitely up there, because Marco Rubio does not either seem to want it or seem ready. Jeb Bush carries Florida, he is the most popular politician still in Florida, and that could be the key to the general election.

HH: And talk a little bit, Robert, you live and breathe the conservative world. And I believe that the Jeb Bush brand is not only very, very powerful, it’s significantly different than the W. brand. Yeah, they’re brothers, they love each other, they stand for same bedrock, core conservative principles. But whereas W. was an instinctual politician, Jeb Bush is kind of a wonk.

RC: He’s not only kind of a wonk, he is a wonk. And he’s known as a wonk not only in Florida, but across the country. And one of the reasons I think Rick Santorum did so well in this presidential campaign is perhaps because he lost in 2006, and he spent some time outside in the political wilderness, nurturing his wounds, sure, but also reading up, staying out of politics, and working with the conservative movement. Jeb Bush has also been out of politics for five or six years, and he has been working on many myriad of activities in Florida that have to do with conservative growth policy, education, individual choice, and these are really appealing things. And he’s not been connected to all the wars inside of Washington, which makes him an outsider with a lot of insider appeal, and that could play really well with Mitt Romney.

HH: He is also, as they say, famously fluent in Spanish. And of course, that matters in this election cycle, doesn’t it?

RC: It’s huge. And Republicans have a major opportunity, perhaps with this vice presidential selection, to really reach out to the Hispanic community in this country. Marco Rubio, of course, would do it, with his background, a Cuban-American. But Jeb Bush, he is not only fluent in Spanish, his wife, of course, is Hispanic, his sons are some of the most articulate spokesmen for the conservative cause in Florida, and throughout the youth GOP movement. He brings a lot to the table, and I think look, as much as Republicans and conservatives don’t like to play identity politics, I don’t think that picking Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio, but especially Bush, would be playing identity politics. It would be an acknowledgement of the importance of Hispanics, and Hispanic conservatives within the GOP coalition, and I think it would be widely cheered throughout the party.

HH: So here’s my suggestion. He’s not going to surprise on name. It’ll be someone experienced. But he might surprise on timing. The methodical Romney selects, vets and approves of a candidate. Why wait? Why not deploy them? Why not put them to work in the swing states, Robert Costa?

RC: I think you’re onto something. Romney at his core is a leader, but he’s also a leader who is a consultant. And that consultant background means that he is going to weigh all the options. And if he thinks it is better for a vice presidential nominee to be named early, expect Romney to do it. He’s not the kind of politician, very different from McCain, who waits late, it’s all about the element of surprise, almost an old-school politician going with the old-school tradition of waiting until right before the convention. Romney is all about winning, and the calculus to win. So if his advisors say look, we’re a little bit dragging here, it’s going to be a long way until the convention, we need to have a united front, I would expect Romney to do it earlier. That’s what makes Romney interesting. He’s not as predictable as everyone thinks. Maybe his short list is predictable, but his timing, as you say, could be very much up for grabs.

HH: Robert Costa of NRO, thank you.

End of interview.

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