Former GOP Chairs Weigh In On Upcoming Primaries

Robert Siegel talks to three former GOP party chairmen and governors about the results of Tuesday's primaries in Michigan and Arizona. Haley Barbour of Mississippi says President Obama is the "great unifier" for Republicans, and that Republicans should focus on opposing Obama's policies. Marc Racicot of Montana says the GOP should make economic issues a priority, rather than focusing too intently on social issues. And Jim Gilmore of Virginia says he feels a connection must be made between the GOP and blue-collar voters.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Well, now to three Republicans who are accustomed to not taking things for granted. They've all run the Republican National Committee and we asked them for their thoughts on the race for the GOP presidential nomination. First, Haley Barbour, the former Mississippi governor. He has not endorsed any of the candidates and we began talking about last night's results in Michigan.

HALEY BARBOUR: Well, I still think that there is not certainty as to how the nomination will come out. Romney helped himself and needed to, but Rick Santorum ran, I thought, surprisingly well to lose Michigan by only three points.

SIEGEL: What should the party be doing as it braces for another round of negative advertising attacks, some from the campaign, some from the SuperPACS, which are perceived as being de facto from the campaigns.

BARBOUR: There's some from the Obama campaign and some from the Democratic National Committee. The best thing for Republicans as we prepare for next November is for the whole debate to be about Obama's policies and the results of those policies, which are anemic.

SIEGEL: Do you see in the performance of Mitt Romney so far in the primary season either his having captured some of the energy from the Tea Party year, from the conservative landslide of 2010 or some capacity on his part to do so between now and November?

BARBOUR: I said earlier on, and some people argued with me, that we didn't really have a frontrunner. The fact that we didn't have somebody like Ronald Reagan, like George H.W. Bush, like George W. Bush in 2000, who was the clear frontrunner that could put this thing away early, that wasn't to our advantage. However, I do think Barack Obama is also the great unifier. I think he unifies Republicans. Let's face it, Mitt Romney's not as conservative as Haley Barbour, never will be.

But he is far, far, far better on that test than Barack Obama. People come up to me and say, Haley, who's got the best chance to beat Obama? That's who I want to vote for. Usually, people say, who's the one that agrees with me on this issue? Who's the one that agrees with me on that issue? But overwhelmingly, people have been coming up to me saying, I want to be for the one that's got the best chance to beat Obama, even if he's not the one I agree with on most issues.

SIEGEL: Haley Barbour, thanks for talking with us once again.

BARBOUR: Thank you, Robert.

SIEGEL: That's former Mississippi governor and former Republican National Committee chair, Haley Barbour. Marc Racicot also once ran the RNC and served as governor of Montana. Just today, he endorsed Mitt Romney and he told us it's because Romney has presented the most specific policies on the economy. Social issues, he says, should take a back seat.

MARC RACICOT: Well, I don't mean to diminish social issues. They are obviously a part of the definition of a candidate and the core character of a candidate and they are important to the American people. But at the same time, I would focus on economics. I would focus on health care. I would focus on job creation. I would focus upon the very essence of our freedom and our economic system in this country constantly and repetitively.

SIEGEL: Another former RNC chairman and Romney-backer shares Governor Racicot's assessment that GOP candidates have to focus on the economy. Jim Gilmore is a past governor of Virginia and he says all kinds of Republicans, from Tea Party to establishment, can agree in their opposition to President Obama's economic policies.

JIM GILMORE: They understand the traditional liberal approaches to government are what's hurting us. And overspending at the government level, over-taxation, all the class warfare chit-chat that we've been seeing this year is counterproductive to the nation. That is, I think, a good mainstream message for the Republican Party, and what I think Romney should be talking about.

SIEGEL: When you speak of class warfare, Republicans describe the call for a higher tax on the very wealthiest Americans as class warfare. If it is, it's a very popular battle because most polls show people think it will only be fair for the very, very rich to pay more. Should the GOP, sometime between now and the fall, climb down from a total opposition to increasing taxes on even those who make tens of millions in a year?

GILMORE: What I believe that we should be doing is harnessing the successful in this country, not milking them. Harnessing them like horses and using them to build up investment and to build up opportunity in this country. That's what the main disconnect is between the left and the right. The left just really believes that it isn't fair for them to have all this money and that you got to get back in there and take more from them in taxes.

But what they misunderstand is that we need to have people with capital investing in this country because it creates jobs and gives more opportunity for everybody in the United States.

SIEGEL: But, you know, the argument's going to be not that people should have no capital, but they should have 2 percent less of it each year or whatever. Being harnessed sounds, you know, maybe it's different from being milked, but it also sounds like taxing work.

GILMORE: It needs to be understood that we need to increase incentives for success in the country. We need to harness the traditional American values of aspiration in reaching an advancement.

SIEGEL: Do you think that Governor Romney's personal success and his personal wealth, which he made, can be a plus, that this can be an ideal of success in the country and actually be an advantage to the GOP in November or is it something you have to tiptoe around a little bit?

GILMORE: No, I think that it could be held up as a person who's worked hard and has been successful. But you can't be insensitive to people who are not in that position, to people who are trying to come along. I know that I grew - my family came from a rural background in Madison County, Virginia. My father was a workingman, a tradesman, a meat cutter for Safeway stores for 45 years.

You know, you have to connect with people. And we have to get people working again and create openings and opportunities for striving and success. And that is the central message.

SIEGEL: But Governor Gilmore, you just used your story as a way of connecting to people...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

GILMORE: Sure.

SIEGEL: ...and saying (unintelligible). Hasn't this been part of Mitt Romney's problem that, my dad was a millionaire auto company president and the governor of Michigan, and I lived a very, very privileged life from day one? Hasn't this been an awkward spot for him...

GILMORE: Yeah, it has been an awkward sport. Just because though that you've been successful and your family has been successful doesn't mean that you're deaf to or insensitive to concerns of regular working people. He can be. I am. And I think the Republican Party needs to be. And I think that we can be. Our goal is to create a society where people could succeed and strive and be successful. That's the conservative principles I think that can succeed in this presidential election.

SIEGEL: Former Virginia Governor Jim Gilmore, thanks a lot for talking with us.

GILMORE: Thank you, Robert.

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Correction March 7, 2012

The March 1 correction to this story mischaracterized a conversation with Haley Barbour, referring to social issues. Barbour did not talk about social issues in the conversation that we aired.

March 1, 2012 — In a previous Web introduction to this piece, we incorrectly indicated that Haley Barbour said the GOP campaign should now focus on social issues. He actually said the campaign should not do so.

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