GOP shouldn't hesitate

Last modified: 5/8/2011 12:00:00 AM
Even before President Obama approved the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, the Republicans who want to replace Obama faced a stature gap. Now it's wider.

Yet it would be a mistake for the candidates, whoever they are, to let the president's 'Mission accomplished' moment keep them on the sidelines. The glory will fade, and voters will soon be looking for a positive, compelling challenger to Obama, especially on the economy.

We won't know if the Republicans have such a candidate until the field is set. That's the party's first priority: Potential candidates must decide whether they're in or out. The sooner they do, the sooner they will sideline the celebrities who have turned the early campaign into a tacky reality show.

Serious candidates here will begin by learning to understand the state. The history of the primary and the rules governing it are a good place to start.

Next year's primary will be decided by independent voters. This is not 2008, when the dynamic race between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton attracted undeclared voters to the Democratic ticket. This time, with Obama nearly certain to face no opposition in the Democratic primary, most independents will cast Republican ballots.

The primary will also be the first referendum on the Tea Party movement. So far in New Hampshire, the new Republican legislative majority has passed bills that punish the poor, gut public education at all levels and throw state expenses back on local property taxpayers. They have attacked abortion rights, public employee unions and people with

disabilities.

The conventional wisdom for Republican candidates is to run to the right in the primaries and move back toward the middle for the general election. That would seem to recommend embracing the Tea Party and its hard-right agenda. But in New Hampshire, there are signs the public has caught onto how mean-spirited and destructive the Tea Party agenda is. By primary time, sucking up to the Tea Party could leave candidates hostage to positions the public hates.

The 1996 Republican primary offers an object lesson. Then, as now, a Republican insurgency had taken over the U.S. House in the mid-term election, weakening an incumbent Democratic president.

By primary day, however, the Newt Gingrich revolution was sputtering and the Republican field offered no outstanding choice. Bob Dole, the favorite, excited no one. Lamar Alexander, Dole's chief center-leaning rival, served up just enough ideas to slice into Dole's vote. Only the populist Patrick Buchanan really listened to voters. When he won the primary, it was less a sign that he was the coming man than a blow to Republican hopes.

Nevertheless, Buchanan's victory offers important lessons to Tim Pawlenty, Mitt Romney and the other GOP candidates for 2012. Buchanan went out and met voters on their own terms. He listened to their concerns, and his campaign responded to them. His quest was to expand his base, not play to it.

The best model for the kind of campaign Buchanan ran is more recent than 1996. The candidate who wants to rise above the pack in 2012 ought to rent John McCain's bus tomorrow and start mixing it up with voters at town-hall forums and high schools.

The purpose of community forums is as much to hear what people think as to ask for their votes. If candidates want to know how the Tea Party is playing with voters, all they have to do is listen.

There is another benefit to a wide-open conversation with voters. Candidates communicate their ideas through policy speeches. In their debates and stump appearances, Buchanan and McCain were far more attuned to what voters were thinking than they would have been without a full calendar of face-to-face events.

Voters haven't stopped caring about education or health care or the economy. They never do. They understand that people who are mentally ill or physically challenged need help from the government. Most of them support the right of public employees to unionize. They want the roads fixed. They understand that the free market has gaps that government can ameliorate.

By this time four years ago, Obama and Clinton were already addressing voters' core concerns in thriving New Hampshire campaigns. Thus far, the Republicans have instead given us annoying prattle about who's in and who's out and the Donald Trump sideshow.

And now the death of the world's most notorious terrorist has given them another reason to hesitate.

Time's a-wasting. Running for president in New Hampshire is a grind, but dozens of past candidates have shown the way. Engage voters. Listen to them. Build a candidacy that stresses core party values and provides the public a clear and positive alternative.

As bleak as things look now, things change.




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