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Christie's No & What It Means

“I could vote for Christie,” a friend who has never before voted for a Republican said to me yesterday. “He doesn’t sound like a tape recording.” Alas, unless my friend intends to move to New Jersey, he won’t be voting for Gov. Christie anytime soon.

Gov. Christie’s decision not to run for president should leave most GOP leaders with a pit in the bottom of their stomachs. They look at the crop of candidates and have to ask, “Is this the best we can do?” With President Obama vulnerable on account of the still anemic economy, and the GOP base fired up, 2012 should be a good year for the Republicans but you can’t beat someone with no one and, so far, none of the GOP contenders has been able to catch fire and keep it going for more than a month. Cong. Michele Bachmann entered the race and moved up in the polls, then deflated. Gov. Rick Perry entered the race, and even shot to the top of the polls, but he, too, has plummeted in the past couple of weeks.

Voters consider several things when they go into the voting booth. Obviously, many voters think about certain issues that are especially important to them and where the candidates stand on those issues. Others, although they are disproportionately over-represented in professional campaign circles, worry about electability. But, in the end, voters cast their ballot for a person.

Long gone are the days when party platforms actually mattered. In 1948, the Democratic Party split apart not when President Harry S. Truman was renominated but when the convention amended the party platform to include a strong civil rights plank. These days, party platforms are used to appease special interest groups, inserting their desired language on any given issue. They are rarely referred to by the candidate and they are certainly not blueprints for governance. This is regrettable, no doubt, but in our star-studded culture, the media focus tends to shift away from particular approaches to any given issue and instead focus on the personality of the candidates.

Personality was Christie’s trump card. The man comes across as authentic. His comments yesterday about the many late night comedians who made fun of his weight were indicative of the man. Christie was not defensive. He said he thought some of the jokes were funny and, quite rightly, said that funniness is the proper criterion for judging humor, not whether or not a politician is offended. Sometimes Christie’s blunt style crosses a line and he appears like a bully, but most times he appears to be a straight shooter who is comfortable in his own skin. It was this, not his stance on the issues, that had so many Republicans pining for him to run. Indeed, on many issues, Christie would have been the most liberal candidate in the race. But, those urging him to get into the race banked on the theory that his personality would help him appeal to the GOP base even if they disagreed with him on certain issues.

Last night on the cable news shows and in this morning’s papers, most of the commentators agreed that Christie’s decision not to run most benefits former Gov. Mitt Romney. Already, one of the big GOP fundraisers who were calling on Christie to run announced that he is now backing Romney. But, the main benefit to Romney is that he does not have to stand on a debate stage next to Christie. Romney actually does sound like a tape recorder. His polished demeanor certainly suggests he is the adult in the room, but it often slides into slickness. If Christie might have earned some Tea Party support based on his authenticity, the most important fact in the race so far is that Mitt Romney has not been able to expand his base of support by attracting Tea Party voters. He does not talk like them. His history of flip-flopping on important issues worries them. And, most importantly, for people who have been denouncing the Affordable Care Act as the ruin of America, the fifth column of socialism, and the creator of “death panels,” Romney’s very similar approach to health care reform in Massachusetts has many Tea Party voters not just disinclined to support his candidacy but strongly opposed to it. It is very telling that as Gov. Perry’s numbers declined, Romney’s numbers did not move.

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With his Florida straw poll victory and subsequent rise in the polls, the klieg lights are about to focus on Herman Cain. If history is any guide, this more intense focus will not help him. Cain is personable but, unlike Christie, his slogans sound canned. More importantly, independent voters are unlikely to give the keys to the car to someone who has not mastered the vast range of issues a president must confront. I can think of a half a dozen questions off the top of my head that I imagine Cain is not prepared to answer. Can he give a brief resume of the Mideast Peace Process? Could Cain list those countries that belong to NATO or enumerate the alliance’s previous military engagements? Does he know what percentage of undocumented workers came to this country legally, with a tourist or student visa, and over-stayed their time limit, that is to say, those for whom a fence would not make a difference? Can he square his arch views on the 10th Amendment with the national benefits achieved by the Civil Rights Act? In the next debate or two, or even in an interview, look for Cain’s lack of political experience to make itself known in a way that does not earn applause, in a way that makes independent voters squeamish about how his lack of government experience. It is one thing to know how to run a business. It is another to know how to run the government.

Gov. Perry should not be counted out. Expectations for him have been lowered, especially his ability to debate, and a strong performance could lead GOP primary voters to conclude that he was just getting his sea legs when he first entered the race. A strong performance by Cong. Bachmann could have a similar effect on her candidacy: She was poised to reclaim some of her share of the electorate after her successful attack on Perry over the vaccination of young women against cervical cancer, but then she stepped on her own strong performance by repeating some crazy idea she heard in the parking lot. I have long predicted that by refusing to attack his fellow candidates, positioning himself as broadly acceptable to everyone, and continuing to shine in debates, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich might yet catch fire. He could become everyone’s second favorite choice, which may be the best place to be. Unlike Romney, he has conservative bona fides and comes across as meaning what he says. Unlike Cain, he knows the ins-and-outs of government. Unlike Bachmann, he never gets that dear in the headlights look. And, unlike Perry, he speaks English.

The GOP has a real problem on their hands. They want to win and should have a good shot at it. To be clear, any Republican candidate in 2012 will fare better than John McCain did in 2008. But, I just don’t see anyone on that stage who can take on President Obama and win. I suspect that the defection of white working class voters from the Democrats will be offset by Democratic gains among Latinos. The election might well mirror the demographics of the Church, as ethnic Polish and Irish and French Canadian parishes get closed in the Northeast while they can't build Catholic churches fast enough in Dallas, Atlanta and North Carolina, parishes where the main Sunday Mass will be in Spanish. And, in the suburbs of Philadelphia and Columbus and Milwaukee and Orlando, where national elections are won and lost, I just don't see any of the current crop of GOP contenders winning many hearts.

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