Peter King wishes all the Republican candidates would at least read the newspaper

Pete King. ()
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Representative Peter King has almost settled on a presidential candidate.

"I think, first of all, Mitt Romney is clearly the most competent candidate we have," he told me in a phone interview this afternoon.

"I will probably end up endorsing Mitt Romney, I'm just not ready to do it now. If it comes down, which it looks like it will, to a campaign on the economy, I would say business experience and competency, Mitt Romney is clearly our strongest candidate. He's probably won all the debates. Certainly, he hasn't lost any of them, I'll put it that way. And he's serious. He's shown he's a serious player."

In King's view, that seriousness has distinguished Romney from most of the rest of field. At one time, King had been charitable about the prospects of Rick Perry's campaign—both King and Perry had been staunch supporters of Rudy Giuliani in 2008—saying the Texas governor had the potential to be a "dominating candidate," and that he could even win over the less-conservative Republicans from King's home turf of Long Island. But that moment appears to have passed.

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"I mean, Rick Perry has shown he's not serious," King said. "You can't run for president without having a greater grasp of the issues."

"Like with Herman Cain, you shouldn't run for president if you don't read the newspaper," he said.

King said the primary slate just isn't what it used to be.

"I'm just thinking back, going over the years, and I'm really dating myself, but when you saw the candidates that were running in primaries, let's say, back in Kennedy or Nixon's day: You had Nixon, you had Rockefeller, you had Henry Cabot Lodge," he said. "I mean these guys are all serious players. You had Barry Goldwater. Then the Democrats had Kennedy, Johnson, Humphrey, Stevenson. I mean, these guys are all knowledgeable. Some of these Republican candidates look like they just sort of walked in."

King, who chairs the House Committee on Homeland Security, said he had particular problems with a pervasive strand of isolationism among some of the current candidates, who have has talked about withdrawing our forces from Iraq, Afghanistan, and lots of other places.

"Ron Paul is a friend of mine, but he's talking about America being an imperial power," King said. "I mean, no Republican on the stage should stand for that. Or implying that somehow we're responsible for 9/11.

"I mean, we were—going back to 1952, from Eisenhower, to Nixon, to Reagan, to both Bushes—we were a party known for having a strong foreign policy and realizing we can't retreat from the world."

I asked why he thought these Republicans had changed.

"I don't know," he said. "Maybe because Iraq didn't go that well and there was a popular feeling, which I understood, against foreign involvement. But the test of a party is not to cave when public sentiment goes against you."

I asked whether he had heard anything out of the candidates on this topic that he liked.

"I like some of the rhetoric about Iran, but when I hear, again, almost an isolationist tone about bringing the troops home as quickly as possible, it reminds me more of George McGovern than Ronald Reagan."

King said he hoped to hear the candidates express that more robust Republican foreign-policy view in tonight's CNN debate on the subject of national security.

"I would hope the Republicans stand up and take strong stands, I'm not talking about macho stands. What I'm talking about is a solid, coherent, strong foreign policy view and a realization that we are—whether we want to be or not, and we should want to be, but whether we want to be or not—we are a world power. And to the extent we withdraw from the world, other forces inject themselves."

"It's not as if we go away, the troubles go away. If we go away, I think the troubles get worse. That has been the traditional Republican position—now we can debate that and argue it, but the fact is that has been the traditional Republican position. And I don't see any reason why Republicans should be backing away from that position."

King said he had met Romney once, earlier this year, at a fund-raiser on Long Island, and the two had talked, on-and-off, over the course of about an hour, mostly about the threat of terrorism.

"I found him very very encouraging, very very supportive," he said.

When I asked about the potential damage this presidential field might be doing to the Republican brand, King came back to Romney.

"I think if Mitt Romney is the nominee, the Republican brand will be strong, because he'll be competent," King said. "I mean, he's not going to give a bad answer, he's not going to show a lack of understanding, so he will certainly show that we are an intelligent party, that we understand the issues. On some of his foreign policy positions, I may have some concerns but at least he expresses them in an articulate, intelligent way. Mitt Romney certainly measures up as a very legitimate candidate, no matter what."

On the subject of Newt Gingrich, the latest not-Romney candidate to surge in the national polls, he was dismissive.

"I don't support Newt Gingrich," said King, who sparred with Gingrich when they were both in the House.

(King once said Gingrich had "a Southern, anti-union attitude that appeals to the mentality of hillbillies at revival meetings.")

"I do not think he overall did an effective job as speaker and I don't think he has the discipline to be the Republican nominee."