6:25 pm Feb. 9, 2012
Steve Schmidt, a political strategist for Bush and Cheney and campaign adviser to John McCain, agrees with the pro-Obama Democrats who say there's no real comparison between the Democratic primary of 2008 and the Republican primary of 2012.
In 2008, he said, it was a question of the Democrats' inability to choose between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
"They could have only one of them," he said, in front of several hundred people at NYU's Skirball Center. “In 2012, Republicans want none of them.”
Robert Shrum, a former speechwriter who has worked for or advised Democratic candidates in nearly every election cycle for the past four decades and is now a fellow at NYU's Wagner School, agreed, but said Republican voters would have to settle on Mitt Romney, eventually.
“I think it’s almost inconceivable that anybody else wins the nomination,” he said.
Schmidt said that in the general election, a baggage-free Santorum might have a leg up on a gaffe-ridden Romney, even if Santorum would have problems appealing to centrists and suburban women voters.
Shrum said Romney would have problems in the general, too.
“It’s fine to be rich," he said. "FDR was rich. JFK was rich. People thought they cared about ordinary people. [Romney] reinforces the impression that he’s out of touch and doesn’t care."
Schmidt, who helped re-elect George W. Bush, provided some insight on how the campaign made a flip-flop narrative against then-nominee John Kerry stick. He said the campaign tried to push facts about Kerry’s voting record, but couldn’t connect with voters. And then Kerry did their work for them, when he defended his $87 billion defense vote.
At the suggestion of George Stephanopoulos, who was moderating the discussion, each of the two pros gave some free advice for Romney.
First, they both said accepting Donald Trump’s endorsement was a mistake.
“I never saw a worse visual tableau than that endorsement,” Shrum said. “And Romney looked so uncomfortable, it looked like Gordon Gekko standing next to a Ken doll.”
Schmidt later compared the scene to a “hostage video.”
“At the end of the day, it was an opportunity to get up there and show the presidential temper and character and strength, and it was a missed opportunity,” he said. “I think they viewed it transactionally and it was a mistake.”
They both said Romney need a large issue to motivate voters, saying his 59-point economic plan wasn’t ambitious enough.
Stephanopoulos said this is cycle was the best year for a third-party candidate, and all three each agreed Gore would have won the 2004 election if not for Ralph Nader.
Shrum, who advised Ted Kennedy in his 1994 debate against Romney for Senate, had some perspective on Barack Obama’s debates with the likely nominee.
“He is capable, when he is carefully coached and stays in his message box, he’s capable of doing very well,” he said.
“Absolutely,” Stephanopoulos said.
Shrum continued: “His expectations will be very low, and the president’s expectations will be very high. So that’s one thing I think that could help turn it around.”
But, he said, Romney could get brittle and react badly when facing unexpected challenges.
A Wagner student in the audience asked who would be good pick for Vice President, if Romney was the candidate to fight Obama. Shrum said to appeal to Hispanic voters, three candidates stood out: Marco Rubio, Brian Sandoval and Susana Martinez.
On Obama's recent embrace of super PACs, Shrum said that was just the name of the game.
“It would have been suicidal not to,” Shrum said. “You have to play by the rules as they are.”
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