GOP Presidential Race Likely to Be a "Competence Primary"

GOP Presidential Race Likely to Be a "Competence Primary"

By Scott Conroy - December 2, 2010

As the last presidential cycle began to kick into high gear in December of 2006, the race was already becoming defined by the unusually intriguing backgrounds of the likely contenders. From a Sept. 11 icon to a war hero to the nation's first serious female and African-American candidates, the 2008 Republican and Democratic primary battles were shaping up as a contest of big personalities and fascinating life stories.

But as the 2012 Republican primary season begins to take shape more slowly, early indications suggest a race that may be defined by more prosaic questions of competence and proven accomplishments.

Just as Barack Obama's soaring rhetoric and vow to change the tone in Washington proved well-suited to voters who were yearning for a candidate who represented a dramatic departure from the status quo in 2008, Republican candidates in this cycle will vie to present themselves as the most diametrically opposed to Obama's perceived deficiencies.

"The frame is always around the incumbent, and so whatever weaknesses the incumbent has, that's where the frame ends up," Mark McKinnon, a Republican strategist and former adviser to George W. Bush and John McCain, told RealClearPolitics. "So if Obama is seen as having a competence issue, then competence is likely to be a key message for the coming election. And it's ironic that just one cycle ago, it was an asset to be inexperienced, but now given the experience we've had the last couple of years, inexperience could be a liability."

With the economy, jobs, and growing concerns over the debt figuring to remain at the forefront of the conversation, a proven record of successful economic stewardship is likely to be at a premium.

And even though the tea party movement struck fear into long-serving Republicans who did not pass muster on certain ideological tests, GOP strategist John Feehery pointed to more nuanced midterm election results, which suggested that voters favored candidates who had already proven their ability to lead effectively.

"The tea party candidates who didn't have a lot of experience and didn't exhibit a lot of competence didn't do very well, but the ones who actually showed they could run large organizations or had experience in government, they all won pretty easily," Feehery said. "I think you have to be the most conservative person who has competence. This is different than a low-turnout primary in a small state, for a Joe Miller or a Christine O'Donnell or Sharron Angle. There will be a lot more people turning out in the presidential campaign, and it's not going to just be the activists."

The consensus among many Republican strategists that competence will be a particularly valuable commodity for White House hopefuls is a primary reasons why Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour continue to be named as top-tier potential candidates, even though each currently polls in the low single digits nationally.

Daniels and Barbour are neither telegenic nor particularly captivating orators, but each governor would be able to brag about a clear record of accomplishment, particularly on fiscal issues. And it might not hurt that both of their personalities seem so diametrically opposed to Obama's.

The impending shift in emphasis in this presidential cycle might best be personified by former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, who spent much of 2007 trumpeting his socially conservative bona fides, as part of his failed strategy to win the Iowa caucuses and then build on that momentum to steamroll his way through the rest of the early states. This time around, Romney is widely expected to emphasize from the beginning his persona as a competent manager, which he turned to more forcefully and with some belated success in subsequent 2008 primary contests.

"Romney finally got to the message a little bit late, and it was, ‘I'm someone who can fix broken government. I've fixed broken companies, and I can fix broken government, and I have the management experience to be able to do that,'" Feehery said. "That's not necessarily an inspiring message, but I think people are kind of inspired out."

Another potential candidate who appears to be taking some steps to prepare for a campaign that emphasizes competence is former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, who is clearly cognizant of the political liabilities inherent in her decision to resign from office with a year-and-a-half left in her first term.

Though Palin has embraced rather than downplayed her celebrity status and has not shied away from weighing in frequently on the culture wars, she has also begun to more forcefully make the case for her record of achievement in Alaska at the local and state level.

In a recent interview with RealClearPolitics, Palin aide Rebecca Mansour was eager to defend the former governor's record of initiating reform and her reputation for taking on entrenched interests, which was a primary reason John McCain selected her to be his running mate.

"When she sees governors who are right now having to deal with reforming their public employee retirement systems, she's been there and done that," Mansour said. "I don't think that people realize she had to reform that in Alaska, and there was tremendous pressure put on her to return to the unfunded, underwater defined benefits program. But she had to reform it to make it solid, and because she didn't cave on it, the unions ran full page ads against her in Juneau."

Of course, governing success and experience are not the only assets that will make for a sure GOP winner, even in this political environment. According to Republican consultant Brian Donahue, the successful Republican candidate in 2012 will be the one who can most effectively tout his or her record, while also demonstrating a strong personality and helming a solid campaign apparatus.

Donahue agreed with other GOP strategists who said that this cycle is more likely to reward a candidate who can effectively sell the steak, rather than just the sizzle.

"Americans are paying much more attention now than they have in recent history on the issues," he said. "This year poses an environment where candidates have to convey a strong handle on all of these issues."

Scott Conroy is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @RealClearScott.

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