When the Washington Nationals open spring training next week, Virginia Republican Senate hopeful Ed Gillespie should consider attending. Unlike Robert Redford, Gillespie is no natural. We got a glimpse of that this week.
Incumbent Sen. Mark Warner gave Gillespie a “fat pitch” down the middle. The tech-savvy Democrat appeared on a morning talk radio show and was asked whether he would sign a petition to deport pop singer and wannabe-bad-boy Justin Bieber. Warner said he would and later put a message out on Twitter stating that he isn’t “a Belieber.”
This gave Gillespie an early opportunity to show a humorous side that Republicans claim is evident when he’s in small group settings. Instead, the noted GOP campaign consultant saw it as just another opportunity to swing the big bat, hitting Warner for supporting Obamacare. This is the go-to GOP mantra this year. There will be countless chances for Gillespie to recycle this attack between now and Election Day. But this Bieber Moment provided a different opportunity. Gillespie needed to show his lighter side. He didn’t.
John F. Kennedy set the standard for deft political humor. But in 1984, Republican Ronald Reagan raised the bar with a brilliant rejoinder to opponent Walter Mondale in their second presidential debate. At 73, Reagan sought to become the oldest person ever to win a presidential election. Many Americans worried about the Californian’s fitness to continue in the world’s most demanding position. Democrats were hinting at this delicate subject. When questioned at the debate about these concerns, Reagan delivered a show-stopping deadpan: “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.“ Even Mondale broke into a broad smile. Game over.
We predicted weeks ago that Gillespie’s rookie-candidate status could make him not-ready-for-prime-time. Additional bad news for Democratic Obamacare backers surfaced at the same time young Mr. Bieber’s ongoing antics angered Americans. Gillespie apparently couldn’t resist claiming that Warner’s interest in discussing Bieber highlighted a disinterest in commenting on headlines regarding the Congressional Budget Office’s finding that Obamacare would reduce the size of the U.S. labor force by the equivalent of 2.5 million workers.
But the rookie Republican has not yet learned the reason Warner is the state’s most popular politician. The Democrat’s strength is not a magical bipartisan voting record. It is his likable image, built on a good smile, a popular governorship and a carefully cultivated persona as a thoughtful guy. Gillespie will point to Warner‘s Senate voting record and say it’s far more partisan than Warner’s image. Virginians will have months to decide what to believe.
Gillespie needs to understand his real challenge. Warner comes across as a real person, not a polished, political android. This is a very valuable asset.
To counter that, Gillespie needs to project his own appealing personality. If he doesn’t, he risks embarrassment at the polls. This doesn’t require the former Virginia party chair to be a Kennedy or Reagan. But it does require knowing that Bieber Moments demand removing the hard-core political mask. Candidate Gillespie needs to project whatever inner JFK or Reagan he possesses.
He either needs to learn how to chill out, or consider dropping out of the GOP nomination fight. “Nice guys finish last” claims the old baseball adage. Maybe so. But not this year in Virginia.
Norman Leahy is an editor of the conservative Web site BearingDrift.com and producer of the political radio show “The Score.” Paul Goldman is a former chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia. They are blogging together on All Opinions Are Local during Virginia’s 2014 General Assembly session.