George Pataki -- the GOP's Rodney Dangerfield?

George Pataki -- the GOP's Rodney Dangerfield?
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On paper, he sounds like a top-tier candidate for president: A former three-term Republican governor from deep blue New York, who was in office during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and built a legacy anchored in ambitious tax cuts.

If only anyone knew who George Pataki is. 

But Pataki, who will announce his candidacy for president Thursday in Exeter, N.H., does not register in most public polls, if he is included at all. Reporters do not rush him at events in the key primary states, if they show up. Other Republicans do not attack his credentials or even acknowledge him.

In the crowded Republican presidential primary field, Pataki is less a player than a punch line. And he knows it.

“People don’t remember who I am, but we can remind them of that,” Pataki told Newsmax earlier this year.

His stock was not always so low. Eight years ago, as he finished his final term as governor, Pataki was well regarded as a presidential prospect.

His record pushing for and achieving tax cuts, and his role in rebuilding New York after 9/11, were major selling points for his potential candidacy. In his last re-election bid, in 2002, Pataki had also taught himself Spanish and won at least a third of Hispanic votes — an impressive share for a Republican.

“He would be serious,” Americans For Tax Reform President Grover Norquist told New York Magazine at the time. “Republicans would not say, ‘That guy has no chance.’”

But Pataki left office in 2007 with painfully low job approval ratings, and another New York Republican, former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, entered the presidential race as a frontrunner. After launching an exploratory committee and earnestly testing the waters, Pataki quietly decided not to run; afterward, multiple Republicans, including Giuliani, sought his endorsement.

In 2011, Pataki again toyed with the idea of running for president, only to opt once more against it. Now, on the third try, his failures to launch have become a joke even for Pataki. 

“I kid up in New Hampshire that every four years, there’s the World Cup, the Olympics, and I show up thinking of running,” Pataki told radio host Hugh Hewitt last month. “But this time, I’ve taken a lot more aggressive steps.”

Indeed, Pataki’s announcement Thursday will mark his 10th trip so far this election cycle to New Hampshire, by his spokesman’s count, and the pro-Pataki super PAC, We The People, Not Washington, has been running television ads in the Granite State for the past month. Camping out in the Granite State will be central to Pataki’s strategy.

Still, while other Republican candidates have spent years bulking up their national brands with television appearances, aggressive networking or building-block campaigns, Pataki has been largely out of the game. 

In 2007, rather than run for president, Pataki joined the corporate law firm Chadbourne & Parke and later founded a consulting group. Although he has made occasional campaign trail appearances on behalf of other candidates and done some work with nonprofit political groups in the interim, the bulk of Pataki’s energies have been directed at his private sector work — not usually the mark of a would-be presidential candidate. 

Another former governor, Jeb Bush of Florida, has also been out of politics since 2007, but his famous last name has expedited and smoothed his reintroduction. Pataki’s return to the campaign trail, meanwhile, has been more jarring. 

“As I’ve been back in Iowa and New Hampshire and South Carolina, people have asked me, ‘Pataki, where have you been?’” he said at the recent Lincoln Dinner in Iowa, where 10 other likely Republican candidates also spoke.

During that trip, some Pataki alums and curious newcomers converged on the Newton, Iowa, living room of Marshall Critchfield, the Jasper County Republican Party chairman, for a coffee with the would-be candidate. The meet-up was organized by Craig Schoenfeld, who led Pataki’s Iowa exploratory efforts during the 2008 cycle, but who plans to sit this election out.

After Pataki spoke, Schoenfeld said, people “came away going, ‘Huh, here’s a guy who nobody may be thinking about now, but we should take a look at this guy.’”

On Thursday in New Hampshire, Pataki will announce his candidacy in the town where the Republican Party has its roots. There, he will look to re-reintroduce himself to a broader national audience, reminding voters of his humble roots in upstate New York, calling for smaller government in Washington, and stressing how his experience with Sept. 11 informs how he would tackle national security problems. He might even toss out a bit of Spanish. 

If only people will watch. 

“We very much understand that we have an uphill challenge,” said Pataki spokesman Dave Catalfamo.

But Pataki and his allies often invoke his first big victory as proof that he has another long-shot bid in him. 

In 1994, Pataki, a little-known freshman state senator running for statewide office for the first time, unseated Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo, a New York icon.

Said Catalfamo, “This is not an unusual place for George Pataki to be.”

Rebecca Berg is a national political reporter for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at rberg@realclearpolitics.com.

 

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