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From Former Bush Aide, A Candid Assessment Of the GOP Candidates

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

A former adviser to President Bush has a brutally candid analysis of the Republican presidential nomination contest: Fred D. Thompson is the campaign's "biggest dud," Mitt Romney has "a real problem in the South" because of his religion, Mike Huckabee's last name is too hick, and John McCain could pull a repeat of his 2000 performance by winning New Hampshire yet losing the battle.

Dan Bartlett, who stepped down as White House counselor in July, gave those frank assessments during a recent speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce that went unnoticed outside the room. Although he and the White House both emphasized yesterday that he was speaking for himself, Bartlett spent 14 years channeling Bush, so his views may be seen as a revealing look at the thinking within the president's inner circle.

Bartlett was harshest about Thompson, deeming the former senator from Tennessee the "biggest dud" because he has not articulated a compelling vision: "The biggest liability was whether he had the fire in the belly to run for office in the first place and be president. So what does he do? He waits four months, fires a bunch of staff, has a big staff turnover, has a lot of backbiting, comes out with his big campaign launch, and gives a very incoherent and not very concise stump speech for why he's running."

Bartlett was also tough on Romney. While crediting the former Massachusetts governor with the "best strategy and organization," he said that his perceived "flip-flopping on positions" has hurt. "He's getting a narrative in the national media as somebody that is too much trying to position himself, trying to hedge himself, almost too mechanical about the issues."

Moreover, Bartlett said, "the Mormon issue is a real problem in the South; it's a real problem in other parts of the country. But people are not going to say it. People are not going to step out and say, 'I have a problem with Romney because he's Mormon.' What they're going to say is he's a flip-flopper."

Bartlett was more sympathetic to McCain, calling the senator from Arizona the "biggest wild card" at this point. "He is now where he does his best," Bartlett said. "He's lean, he's mean, he's out there, he's fighting in New Hampshire. The problem's going to be it always comes down to money, money, money. He doesn't have it. The irony could be he could see this thing play out the exact same way it did in 2000. He could win in New Hampshire and not have any infrastructure or funding to maximize it in a national campaign."

As for Huckabee, a former Arkansas governor, Bartlett termed him the "best candidate," one who mirrors Bush's vision of compassionate conservatism. "He is the most articulate, visionary candidate of anybody in the field," he said. But he added: "He's got the obvious problems -- being from Hope, Arkansas, and, quite frankly, having the last name 'Huckabee.' I hate to be so light about it, but it is, it's an issue. Politics can be fickle like that. I mean, you're trying to get somebody's attention for the first time. . . . 'Huckabee? You've got to be kidding me! Hope, Arkansas? Here we go again.' "

The only top-tier candidate Bartlett did not criticize was Rudolph W. Giuliani, who he said has the "best message," particularly because the former New York mayor has focused on attacking Democrats, not Republicans. "He wants to engage in this debate. And there's a very practical aspect of it because if he's engaged with the Democrats, he's not engaged on . . . his own positions, whatever those that would not be very receptive in a typical Republican primary."

Bartlett declined to predict the nominee. "Republicans, I believe, are terrified about losing the presidency after losing Congress," he said. "I think this is going to be the season of the pragmatic Republican voter. That bodes well for Rudy and it gives McCain a shot, because I think people feel McCain can go toe-to-toe with Hillary in the general election."

Bartlett gave his appraisal during a Sept. 13 joint appearance with Terence R. McAuliffe, campaign chairman for Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.). Video excerpts were posted on the Web site of Leading Authorities, a speakers bureau. Bartlett said he was not conveying Bush's opinions. "They were my views only," he said. White House press secretary Dana Perino echoed that: "He is a private citizen now, expressing his private views. He is not speaking for the president."

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