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10/11: A Look at the Republican Contest for the Presidency

Carl Leubsdorf

10/11: A Look at the Republican Contest for the Presidency

The Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary are just months away.  With so much attention given to these early contests, what are the implications for the current field of Republican candidates?  The Marist Poll’s John Sparks speaks about this issue, the contest on the national level, and President Barack Obama’s re-election strategy with Marist Poll Analyst and syndicated political columnist Carl Leubsdorf who writes a weekly column for The Dallas Morning News.

Carl Leubsdorf

Listen to Part 1 of the Interview:

John Sparks
Carl, we’re three months away from the Iowa caucuses.  So, where we are today with a GOP candidate?

Carl Leubsdorf
Mitt Romney is, as he’s been for some time, the frontrunner, but he’s — in one sense he’s not a very strong fron-trunner.  If you look at the Republican polls, he’s polling between a quarter and a third of the Republican vote.  He hasn’t gone up much.  He hasn’t gone down much.  He’s sort of stable there. And if you look at the more conservative candidates, and I’ll include just about everyone else in the field except Ron Paul, who I think is a special case, they’re polling about 50% of the Republican vote, but the problem is, of course, that it’s all divided up.  And when Perry came into the race, it first was going to be Michele Bachmann, and she had that good debate performance in June and suddenly she started gaining, and then Perry came into the race and then everyone sort of — the conservatives sort of shifted over to him.  Now he’s had some problems and some bad debates. He’s clearly not fully ready for what’s come up.  He’s had the controversy over the racist word on that ranch his family leases in Texas, and he’s dropped, and Herman Cain has come up.  It’s like the vote is shifting from one of them to the other while Romney is over there on the other side.  So, eventually one of two things will happen. Either the conservative vote will consolidate behind someone, and Perry is still the best chance for that, or Romney might be able to win against the very divided field if they all sort of stay in and no one can get enough votes to beat him.  If in Iowa, if in the Iowa caucuses, the field is divided enough, it is not impossible that Mitt Romney could win the Iowa caucuses with a rather low percentage. That’s happened before that the winning candidate didn’t have that much support, and he’s already the favorite in New Hampshire. If he won in Iowa, he’d have a good chance of winning in New Hampshire, and history tells us that Iowa/New Hampshire double winners are almost always nominated.

John Sparks
This business of Rick Perry renting the ranch with a name that’s a racial epithet, is this going to be a fatal blow to his campaign do you think?

Carl Leubsdorf
Well, I don’t think it’s fatal in itself.  His… and I think his bigger problems are two other things.  One is that his position on immigration, which is a very volatile issue and where Republicans feel especially strongly against the flood of illegal immigrants who’ve come into this country, because of the fact that Texas passed a law granting in-state tuition to illegal aliens, and Perry has strongly supported it, that is a very unpopular position in the Republican Party. That was one of the big factors, I think, in his loss of support in the Florida Straw Poll, and the other is that he has not performed well in debates.  Again, it’s not all that surprising. He came into the race late. He’s not spent a lot of time dealing with some of these national and international issues, and it’s sort of the classic situation that the successful politician on the state level, be he a senator or a governor, doesn’t realize until he gets into it how difficult running for president is. Every issue that was visited before is going to be revisited, and he’s suddenly expected to be an expert on all sorts of subject that he never thought much about.

Listen to Part 2:

John Sparks
I want ask you about Herman Cain. I saw a poll today that has Romney and Cain tied on top. Do you think that we could really see a presidential election with two African Americans facing off?

Carl Leubsdorf
Well, I think we could see that some day, but I don’t think we can — likely to see it in 2012.  Herman Cain is basically the “none of the above candidate.”  I think that’s really for the conservatives.  Now he has a lot of appeal to the conservative portion of the Republican Party, the Tea Party crowd. He’s a terrific speaker. He’s very dynamic.  I remember, I have one of my sons, who does some work in politics, told me last summer, said, “The guy you really ought to watch out for is Herman Cain.” And, he does very well when he speaks before these conventions, but he’s really the “none of the above candidate.” I think no serious Republican politician or analyst expects him, in fact, to be nominated, but it’s a sign of Perry’s problems that his support suddenly shifted to Cain.

John Sparks
You and I spoke back in June about Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, Ron Paul, Sarah Palin. Do you believe any of these folks are still serious players?

Carl Leubsdorf
Well, I think Ron Paul is a serious player to the extent that he’s always going to get his 10-to-12%. He has a very strong following.  It’s interesting, I wrote a column in the Dallas Morning News about the fact that the press doesn’t take Paul seriously, and they never pay any attention, and I discussed some things that he had said at a breakfast I was at with him for reporters, and he said, you know, that some of the economic stuff he talks about, he admits it’s a little arcane and that he hasn’t explained it very well.  Paul’s not going anywhere, but he’s also not going to be nominated.

Now as for the other ones, Sarah Palin, as far as we know, is not in the race and has no plans to enter, and that hasn’t changed any.  Of the others, I would guess that most of them have no real chance. I don’t think Michele Bachmann has a chance. I don’t think Newt Gingrich has a chance. The one in that group who might conceivably have a chance is Rick Santorum, and I say that only because he’s come across in the debates as a pretty intelligent guy.  He’s got strong views which fit with the Republican Party.  He knows what he’s talking about, and he doesn’t do some of these verbal shenanigans that Gingrich does denouncing the reporters, and he served two terms in the United States Senate, so he has a background of some experience. He doesn’t have much money and he’s just sort of hanging in there, but it’s conceivable that if the Perry candidacy would not get its moorings and would not recover that he’s the one in that group who just might have an outside chance to make a strong showing in Iowa and somehow get into this race.

The question in the end is: If Perry doesn’t recover to be a strong foe for Romney, can one of these other people do it?  And what happens to the many Republicans who are very cool to the Romney candidacy? Do they just accept it?  We’ve sort of run out of new candidates.

Listen to Part 3:

John Sparks
Yeah, but you know, Carl, if Mitt Romney is the fallback, is that really so bad for Republicans?

Carl Leubsdorf
As a neutral analyst, I think it’s probably pretty good for Republicans.  By all signs, he’s still the strongest general election candidate they have.  He consistently runs better against President Obama than the other candidates. He’s a much better candidate for the party in the North than I think Perry would be, who has — beyond all the issues we’ve talked about, has — there are some — he’s so culturally Texan and Southern that that might be a handicap and appealing to moderate independent voters in Northern states.  Romney, who is from Michigan and served in Massachusetts, would have some appeal there. Now he’s got some problems, most of which are getting very little attention now because of all the to-do about Christie and Herman Cain and Perry. For example, his position on immigration is more hard line than Perry’s, and that could be a problem with Hispanic voters who will be very crucial in states like Colorado and New Mexico and Nevada. He was strongly opposed to the administration’s bailout of the auto industry as he was to most of the administration’s economic policies. Well, the auto industry bailout of Chrysler and GM seems to have worked. It’s one of the success stories the administration has, and there are a lot of auto workers in Wisconsin and Ohio and in Michigan who are probably very happy about it and might not like a candidate who is against it, so there are some issues out there.

John Sparks
I saw a Rasmussen Report that said “A generic Republican wins over Obama 47 to 41 among likely voters.”  Do you think that any of these Republicans could defeat the President?

Carl Leubsdorf
Well, we don’t know that now. If the President’s approval level is in the low 40s and if unemployment is 9% and if more than 70% of the country think that the country is going in the wrong direction, historically it says that it’s very hard for that president to get re-elected, and that would be a real problem.  However if things improve a little bit, it may really depend on which Republican runs against him. The one… the other warning signal for Obama in the current situation — current polls, is in that poll that you mentioned, Obama had 41%, but even in a number of polls that show him ahead in major states, he’s ahead like 45 to 43 or 46 to 44 or 44 to 41.  An incumbent who’s polling in the mid 40s historically is going to have a lot of problems in an election because that probably means that the — all the ones he doesn’t have are going probably going to be against him in the end.

John Sparks
Do you think the main issue, though, still is going to be the pocketbook and jobs?

Carl Leubsdorf

Sure, barring something happening.  I mean it’s always possible something would happen in the month before the election to take attention. Our attention spans seem to be very short on these things, and something becomes a big issue.  Remember when everyone said that the BP oil spill in the Gulf would be the defining issue for Obama, well, that didn’t last very long, and although the anti-terrorism policy has been very successful in this administration because of the ability to kill major Al-Qaeda leaders starting with Osama bin Laden and a whole bunch of others. That’s not getting very much attention these days, so it’s the economy, and it’s the outlook for the economy isn’t very good. It’s as likely we’ll have a double dip recession that will have — than that we’ll have a speedy recovery.

Listen to Part 4:

John Sparks
Carl, people complain that our government is broken, needs fixing, but what about the presidential election process? It’s media-driven, and isn’t the problem that the process is more about headlines and controversy than finding an effective executive who’s right for the moment?

Carl Leubsdorf
To a considerable degree, yes, although I think that it’s interesting.  I mean the cover — the news coverage is certainly that way, and it’s focused on these things. I think the voters, and especially in some of these early states who are much maligned because Iowa and New Hampshire, which come first in the process, are not typical states. They’re much wider than the country as a whole. Iowa is much older than the country as a whole.  Still the people there, I’ve been in those states for a number of elections, and they take it very seriously. They listen to the candidates. They discuss issues.  The press may not be — on cable television may not be discussing the issues, but when they have town meetings with candidates, that’s what they want to know is where these candidates stand on the issues, and that in many cases determines how they vote.  One of the problems is — with the system is that that’s true in the early states, but when a bunch of all these other states compiled in afterwards, it’s sort of like a ping-pong effect, and what happens earlier has an enormous effect on what happens later. That’s why, for example, while Mitt Romney is certainly ahead in New Hampshire now, he has a home there and he’s campaigned there before, the day after the Iowa caucuses, those numbers in New Hampshire are all going to change. If he does well in Iowa, he ought to be able to hold that lead, but if he does very poorly there, and one of the other candidates, whether it’s Perry or Santorum or Cain, does very well, believe me, there will be a quick boom for that candidate in New Hampshire in the five or eight days between the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary.

Listen to Part 5:

John Sparks
Carl, while the Republicans are posturing, what’s Obama’s strategy?

Carl Leubsdorf
Well, for most of this year, President Obama tried — continued to try something that he talked about a lot during in the 2008 campaign and the debt-ceiling fight tried to — which was to try to be in the middle ground, to be, as the White House people used to call it, the adult in the room and to work our compromises with the Republicans in Congress on some of these economic issues and some of these budget issues.  Not only did the effort fail, but the result of it is that everyone’s — the voters’ attitude towards almost everyone in politics went down. And although you’ll find many polls that show that more people favor the Obama position versus the Congressional Republican position, it hasn’t helped Obama’s approval rating, which is — continued to hover in the low 40s.  Starting with Labor Day, the White House has switched course.  When the president presented his jobs program, which by the way included some things that many Republicans have supported before, they show no sign of interest in supporting now, basically what President Obama was proposing was a proposal that was not likely to be approved, but which he could take the country and use as an example to say, “This is what I’m trying to get and this what the Republicans are against.” It’s quite clear that the Republicans are not going to make any major deal in part because they can’t.  Even the leaders who are interested — were interested in dealing with him, such as Speaker Boehner, found themselves constrained by the more hawkish members of their constituency in the House of Representative, and even when they’ve — now both sides agreed on what the budget level should be for the year that just started, the House — some of these House Republicans still trying to cut them even more.  So, I think the White House recognizes there’s not going to be a deal on jobs program, and they’re going to use this politically as much as possible.  When the president was in Dallas recently, he pointed out — he sort of fingered Eric Cantor, the House Majority Leader, and said, “What kind of a jobs program is he for?  Why is he against everything I propose?” And it’s sort of the Harry Truman policy — procedure in 1948.  And Harry Truman in the 1948 election was in deep trouble, and at the time of the Democratic Convention, there was a lot of dissatisfaction, and they all thought they were going to lose, and he electrified that convention, and the way he did it was he made a speech at 1:30 in the morning in which he called Congress back into special session and said he was going to make them consider all the things that they had refused to do.  Well, they didn’t consider them anymore than they had before, but he had an issue, and he took the issue of the do nothing Congress to the country, and Obama is doing something of the same thing, and we’ll see how that works.

John Sparks
Harry Truman also surprised everyone on Election Day in 1948. Is Obama going to be a Harry Truman you think?

Carl Leubsdorf
Well, one reason they surprised him is because polling wasn’t as good as it is now.  With modern polling, it — you’re very rarely enormously surprised. Now the result can be slightly different from the polling. You could have one candidate ahead by two points and then the other one wins by three.  In presidential campaigns, the polling has been quite good lately, but it’s — a lot is going to happen between now and November of 2012, and the situation is going to be affected by external events, going to be affected by the course of the campaign. Obama said the other day that he’s the underdog in the election, and that’s probably true, but a lot of people in Washington would not be totally shocked if in the end he gets elected.  That generic Republican you talked about doesn’t exist, he’s going to have to beat a real live one, and each of them has his shortcomings.

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