Haley Barbour landed a key New Hampshire operative which sends about the clearest of signals that can be sent, and brings to five the number of “top tier” candidates –Barbour, Newt Gingrich, Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum. The kerfuffle between Barbour’s son and Bill Kristol also underscores that all the candidates are now in the zone where even small things can become two day stories.
Some don’t include Santorum in the top tier, but I count him as a real choice for voters in Iowa where he will compete with former Governor Pawlenty for the evangelical vote and first place while former Governor Romney competes for a respectable showing and can live with third or even fourth. Barbour by contrast just needs respectability in New Hampshire and then a great showing in South Carolina. Newt just needs to be Newt and he will self-propel through the winter into the spring.
These five candidates together present a very attractive face to the entire party, and it is crucial that they all accord each other the respect that the party ought to embody. It is so far a field without a westerner/Texan, the first time for the GOP since Dewey’s race in ’48, and even then Earl Warren was something of a factor. (The 1996 primary field included both Texan Phil Gramm and California Governor Pete Wilson). Romney has ties to the mountain west and now California, and if Governor Huntsman really does jump in, the diversity of the backgrounds will give the profile writers much to chew on between now and next January.
Romney remains the front runner, with strength in staff and fundraising and the experience of having been around this track once before. The “MassCare is Obamacare” trope is old already, though it will be used by his GOP competitors and by the president again and again. The best response remains the true one: An attack on an experiment in Massachusetts is an attack on federalism –dangerous in the era of the Tea Party– and that which is allowed to the states –individual mandates– is not constitutional when attempted by the federal government.
The other four are all extremely able stump speakers and question-takers. I have never interviewed Barbour –and will try to change that this week– but Gingrich, Pawlenty and Santorum are, like Romney, very able communicators in the Q and A setting of extended interviews, and each of them ought to be trying to spend as much time on air in longer sessions as possible.
It remains in no one’s interest to start formal debates, especially as Speaker Boehner and Leader McConnell maneuver to force the president to take a serious position on the massive budget crisis. The key confrontations should and will occur in D.C. over the next three to five months, and the GOP’s would-be leaders need to help keep the focus on the president’s incompetence and indecision, not provide a second stage where the MSM might turn the attention to.