Republicans Satisfied With Presidential Field?

With GOP candidate Rick Perry's decline in some polls and calls for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to enter the race, some are wondering if the current field of Republican contenders has the gravitas to win the White House in 2012. Guest host Jacki Lyden discusses the GOP primary race with Republican strategists Mindy Finn and Ron Christie.

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JACKI LYDEN, host: I'm Jacki Lyden, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Michel Martin is away. Coming up, a bake sale at the University of California Berkeley left a bitter taste in many students' mouths yesterday. The group that staged the sale set prices of their treats based on the race of the customers. We'll discuss the controversy with the head of the student group behind the bake sale and the university's student body president. That's in just a few minutes. But first, are Republicans underwhelmed with their options for president in 2012?

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie is fielding renewed calls for him to jump into the White House race in recent days, even though he's repeatedly declared that he doesn't want to run. He stuck with that line in a much-anticipated speech at the Reagan presidential library yesterday, though at times, he sounded like a candidate, especially in his remarks about President Obama.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)

CHRIS CHRISTIE: We watch a president who once talked about the courage of his convictions, but still has yet found the courage to lead. We hope that he will shake off the paralysis that has made it impossible for him to take on the really big things that are so obvious to all Americans. It's a watching and anxious world. Yes, we hope. We hope, because each and every time the president lets a moment to act pass him by, his failure is our failure, too.

LYDEN: The renewed interested in Christie comes in the wake of a tough week for presumptive frontrunner Texas Governor Rick Perry. He lost the straw poll in Florida to Herman Cain, and turned in what many considered a poor performance in the most recent Republican debate. So, does the Republican presidential field need new candidates, or just time to sort itself out? Joining us to explore that question is Mindy Finn. She's a Republican strategist and served as an advisor on New Media for Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign.

And we also have with us Republican strategist Ron Christie - no relation. He's a former aid to Vice President Dick Cheney, and later President George W. Bush. Welcome. Welcome to you both.

MINDY FINN: Thanks for having me.

RON CHRISTIE: It's great to join you.

LYDEN: So, let's just tick down the list. Former Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty, Minnesota Congresswoman Michele Bachmann, Texas Governor Rick Perry - all these candidates entered the race with high expectations from their supporters, and Pawlenty has dropped out. Bachmann has faded since her victory in the Iowa straw poll. Now, of course, we're hearing a lot of sort of discomfort around things that Rick Perry has said in his candidacy. So, Ron, sort it out, if you will. What's going on here?

CHRISTIE: Well, first of all, I think the media likes a good horserace. You know, everyone likes to say who's up this week, who's down this week. But I think what we're watching here, Jacki, is the primary process at work. People have the opportunity to assess the candidates. People have the opportunity to look at their strengths and weaknesses. And in a couple of months, we'll have the opportunity to start voting. So, I don't think there's any disarray.

I don't think there's any, you know, major problem with the Republican field. It's just the natural primary process working its way through the system, and, you know, there are going to be some winners, and there are also going to be some losers.

LYDEN: Well, there's certainly some fodder. Let's listen to how Jon Stewart, the host of Comedy Central's "The Daily Show," characterized the GOP base on Monday.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")

JON STEWART: It's like the Republican base is at war with its own talking points. I want someone who's going to cut taxes and balance the budget, someone's who a skilled orator, who doesn't talk all fancy, the child of poor immigrants who will build a fence to keep them out of this country. Someone who's strong enough for a man, but Ph balanced for a woman, someone who will roll up their sleeves, but not show their arms. And now you want Chris Christie. Sure you do.

LYDEN: Mindy, you're smiling. And at least for now, Chris Christie says he's not going to run. But if he does run, what are his prospects of staying viable beyond this initial period of excitement and flurry and, you know, being in political sketches?

FINN: I think we've just seen some of the danger of the candidates getting in the race. Sometimes they're star shines brightest up until the day they actually enter, and then the national media starts to scrutinize them to a level that they've never experienced before, even as governor or running for governor in a very important state. Rick Perry is an example of that. And so I think for Chris Christie, or even others that might consider it, it kind of serves as a warning sign that, sure, your star's bright now and people are clamoring for you to get into the race, but you may never be as popular as you are today if you actually do enter.

LYDEN: Ron, what strengths and weaknesses do you see in Chris Christie as a presidential contender?

CHRISTIE: Well, certainly, it's a strength he has had the ability to run and become elected in New Jersey, which is a traditionally blue state. He's also had the chance to work with the legislature to make some very difficult decisions to try to balance the budget in New Jersey and to try to frankly continue to attract people to come to New Jersey, not only to live, but to have a business. On the flip side, I think he's largely untested. And I - the thing I worry the most about him is the clip that he said repeatedly, is that he doesn't think that he is tested and experienced enough to be president of the United States.

I don't see how you can come out and say several months ago that I'm not tested and I'm not experienced enough to be president, to six months later saying, you know what? Suddenly I am ready to be president. So, I think he does have some natural liabilities that might hinder his candidacy.

LYDEN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're talking about the current Republican presidential field with Republican strategists Ron Christie and Mindy Finn. Mindy, you worked on Mitt Romney's campaign in 2008, and it would seem like some sectors of the conservative base would like to see anyone but Mr. Romney win the nomination. And isn't that problematic for a presidential hopeful?

FINN: Well, coming into this primary process, everybody was looking to Obamacare or Romneycare as this major vulnerability for Mitt Romney, and it certainly continues to be. And it's not just that it's some of the positions or the switched positions that he's taken. He's being called a flip-flopper. But you've - what we've seen, though, is that this - that practice and experience matters a lot in this process. There's a reason that Republicans contend to nominate the next in line.

It happened with John McCain last time, even after people thought his - had written his candidacy for dead. And we're seeing that dynamic play out with Mitt Romney right now. You're seeing he's a much better debater. He's not getting tripped up on a lot of these issues, even something that would be a major vulnerability, like Obamacare. So, instead right now, the media narrative is much more about Rick Perry's immigration problem than it is about Mitt Romney's healthcare problem. And I think that's a shock, but it's a sign of how well Mitt Romney and his team is really navigating this primary process.

LYDEN: You are so skilled in social media. I just wonder if you think there's anything that candidates should be doing on the social media front that they're not doing with it, especially with the base.

FINN: I think the candidates have actually become a lot more savvy in terms of social media, and you see all of the candidates being incredibly aggressive. There was an article yesterday in the San Francisco Chronicle, I believe, about Michele Bachmann's Facebook ad strategy around the Iowa straw poll, and she won the straw poll. Now, her candidacy has suffered since, but she won the straw poll, and you didn't see candidates being that aggressive last time.

Rick Perry is one to be extremely authentic and use Twitter personally and Facebook personally and really taught these programs. Mitt Romney was the first to run a Twitter advertisement when Twitter first rolled that out last week. So, I think the candidates are doing a pretty good job. We'll just see how that plays out as the primary continues.

LYDEN: Ron, I wouldn't want to leave out of this conversation several of the other names that we've heard about as potential Republican presidential contenders: Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, Florida's Junior Senator Marco Rubio, and of course, former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin. Do you think that any of them might ultimately run?

CHRISTIE: I think Governor Palin is taking a look at this, but at the end of the day, I don't see any of those other candidates jumping in the race. The amount of organization, the amount of money, and frankly, the ability to have a national campaign, to stand that up so quickly, I just don't foresee, at this point, any of the candidates that you mentioned jumping in. But on the other hand, with as fluid as this field is, up until we get into October, when, you know, candidates obviously have to see about getting their name on the ballot, there is time for those folks to jump in. But I just think that the field that we see now is more or less set. The question is: Who's going to emerge, and who's going to start dropping out?

LYDEN: What about some other names? Perhaps - do you think that Herman Cain and Jon Huntsman are getting enough consideration, Mindy?

FINN: It's anybody's game, in that the race is already fluid, as Ron says, but I think I agree with him. The field is pretty much set. I think the frontrunners will remain the frontrunners.

I do think that Republicans, particularly Republican activists, are looking for their knight in shining armor. They're looking back to Ronald Reagan and they want the next Ronald Reagan, and they're looking at this field and they're not seeing that.

But a Suffolk University poll that came out, I believe, last week, said 68 percent of Republicans are satisfied with the field. Of course, they want more choices. They don't have that Ronald Reagan figure. They're waiting for him.

But ultimately, once they get used to the fact that the field is set, they're going to start picking their winners and picking their losers, and the primary process is going to play out, as Ron said.

LYDEN: Ron, as you know, President Obama is certainly perceived as weak by these Republican candidates. So, a final question for each of you. If the election were held today - and I'm going to put you on the spot - which of the current candidates do you think stands the best chance of beating President Obama?

CHRISTIE: Hands down, I think it's Governor Mitt Romney.

LYDEN: Because?

CHRISTIE: I think - as Mindy's pointed out - I think he is a much better candidate, a much better campaigner, and he comes across in a much more familiar, much more warm, frankly, way than he did several years ago. And I think he has the experience and the background, not only to beat President Obama, but most importantly, to lead this country forward in a very difficult economic time.

LYDEN: Now, Mindy, you work for him, so I think I can probably predict who you're going to say.

FINN: Well, also, I mean, you don't want to live and die by polls, but the polls show that Mitt Romney leads Barack Obama right now while the other candidates are behind.

LYDEN: You mentioned the Suffolk poll and 68 percent. Do you think there's any concern, any, sort of, wistfulness that, as you said, that knight in shining armor hasn't appeared?

FINN: Sure there is, but you know, ultimately, we're looking at a very vulnerable president right now as he heads into reelection. And so, ultimately, Republicans just want to see Barack Obama defeated and they're going to get behind their candidate when they decide to do that and support them all the way.

LYDEN: Do you agree, Ron?

CHRISTIE: Absolutely. I think the one thing that folks in the media like to say, although the Republican field's unsettled, the one thing that all Republicans, I think, are settled on is that this president has not done the stewardship, given the leadership and brought the country together as promised. And once we have that Republican candidate, we're all going to coalesce around him or her and try to defeat President Obama.

LYDEN: Ron Christie is a former aid to Vice President Dick Cheney and later, President George W. Bush. He's currently a fellow at Harvard University, teaching at the Institute of Politics, and he joined us from studios at Harvard.

And Mindy Finn is a Republican strategist and she served as an advisor on new media from Mitt Romney's 2008 presidential campaign, and she's the cofounder of the political consulting firm, Engage. And she joined us right here in our Washington, DC studios.

And I want to thank you both very much for being with us today.

FINN: Happy to be here.

CHRISTIE: A pleasure.

FINN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LYDEN: Coming up, campus bake sales aren't normally associated with controversy, except when goods are priced on a customer's race and gender.

SHAWN LEWIS: The subject and the debate of race in politics in America is undoubtedly a controversial issue. So to face that controversial issue with a controversial event, doesn't seem all that extreme.

LYDEN: A Republican student group's bake sale sparks a heated debate about race and admissions policies. That's coming up on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.

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