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In N.H., John H. Sununu Aims to Back a Governor in '16

In N.H., John H. Sununu Aims to Back a Governor in '16

By Scott Conroy - December 24, 2014

HAMPTON FALLS, N.H. -- Far from the crowded diners and towns halls that form the backdrop of primary campaigning in New Hampshire, consequential discussions about the impending race for the Republican presidential nomination are already being held inside a big house at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac. 

Ambitious visitors to the Seacoast region home of former Gov. John H. Sununu typically are offered a cup of coffee or glass of water before they take a seat on the plush living room couch.  

After a bit of small talk, it’s down to business.  

Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio are two of the potential 2016 GOP hopefuls who have already paid their respects and sought counsel in this fashion from Sununu, who steered George H.W. Bush’s 1988 New Hampshire primary victory over Bob Dole and went on to serve as the 41st president’s White House chief of staff. 

These days, Sununu remains the patriarch of the Granite State’s tightknit -- if somewhat adrift -- Republican family, and his endorsement will be among the most coveted leading up to the first-in-the-nation primary. 

For that reasons, Sens. Cruz and Rubio will be unhappy to learn that his support for their prospective candidacies does not appear to be in the cards.   

“I think the next president has to be a governor,” Sununu told RCP in an interview. “The country cannot tolerate having somebody who’s never had to deal with a legislature or make executive branch decisions in the White House. This thing’s got to be fixed, and it’s got to be fixed by somebody with that talent. Eight years of nothing has to be repaired. So I haven’t made a commitment yet, but I will probably endorse a governor or a former governor.” 

After taking another sip of coffee on this morning when last-minute Christmas shopping remained on his agenda for later in the day, Sununu added that he may also choose to sit out the primary fight altogether, considering that he has many friends who are likely to be competing against one another in the race.

But his contention that the next standard-bearer should be a governor has been echoed by many other prominent GOP officials around the country -- and by several of the likely candidates who currently occupy corner offices in their state capitols, or once did.  

Sununu singled out Wisconsin’s Scott Walker, Indiana’s Mike Pence, Ohio’s John Kasich, Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal, and former Govs. Jeb Bush (Florida) and Mitt Romney (Massachusetts) as potentially strong candidates who could earn his backing. 

He said he’s open-minded about which contender he will support, despite a common assumption that his deep and longstanding ties to the Bush family make an eventual endorsement of Jeb Bush nearly inevitable.  

“I’m not going to say anything, but that may be not a good assumption,” Sununu said.  

An MIT-trained mechanical engineer who can solve complex mathematical equations in his head more quickly than it takes other people to do with a calculator, Sununu is known in New Hampshire as much for his sharp political acumen as for his penchant for stirring up controversy via off-the-cuff remarks.  

On its face, Sununu’s backing alone may not mean much in a state where endorsements from the powers that be are often regarded with a shrug and a terse reply of “So what?” 

But it is the still feisty 75-year-old’s willingness to go to the mat for whomever he gets behind that is the greatest value he brings to a campaign. 

Sununu is already offering some collective advice to all of the likely contenders.  

In the interview, he said that the Romney campaign’s biggest mistake during the last race was failing to emphasize issues “in the right sequence,” suggesting that the 2012 nominee moved too eagerly to paint himself as a hard-right firebrand during the early stages of the primary fight.  

“The more conservative members of the Republican Party are beginning to understand that hot rhetoric doesn’t change policy,” Sununu said. “I think people are beginning to hone down to the details of commitment on the issues, rather than the noise.” 

But Sununu, who has never shied from doling out a healthy dose of “hot rhetoric” himself, made clear that a milquetoast contender isn’t going to cut it in New Hampshire this time around either.   

“Politics is like diving: Style points count,” he said. “And you have to have a style that is attractive, so you can succeed, and so you can implement policies. I want to change policy, not just rub something in people’s eye.”

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

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