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New Hampshire tea leaves

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Michael Gerson
May 6, 2011
— The sudden end of Osama bin Laden’s career of homicide does not assure President Obama’s re-election. But it does remove an obstacle. On foreign policy, Obama was at risk of creating durable impressions of weakness. He seemed content, in the words of one adviser, to lead from behind—skeptical of American exceptionalism and accepting of America’s relative decline in global influence.

The Navy SEALs, it turns out, do not lead from behind. Nor do they adopt methods that would please Attorney General Eric Holder. They demonstrated an exceptional talent for killing America’s enemies, in a unilateral action, ordered by a president instead of a jury. Americans may not vote based on foreign policy, but they don’t like their presidents to be hapless. The events of this week are an antidote to haplessness.


But after (appropriately) chanting “USA! USA!” Americans returned to homes with underwater mortgages, in cars that require a mortgage to fill with fuel, in an economic recovery that feels more like a lingering flu, in a country that seems destined for a sovereign debt crisis. It is the Republican wager, and not a bad one, that these conditions remain the context for the 2012 presidential election.


At the first forum of the New Hampshire political season, the emphasis was all on economics and energy policy. The state’s Republican political class—from Ron Paul libertarians to John McCain stalwarts—was compressed into a single Manchester ballroom. Freshly minted tea-party activists mingled uneasily with world-weary establishment Republicans. But in a state where “live free or die” is a surefire applause line, it is difficult to tell much ideological difference between the groups.


New Hampshire exemplifies the Republican message challenge on the economy. The rise of the tea party has transformed the state’s Republican Party—determining both the speaker of the House and the party chairman. The most vocal activists are in no mood to compromise. But with no Democratic contest this time around, independents will vote in the Republican primary in large numbers. Candidates must motivate an impatient base without alienating centrists—not a bad description of their national task.


Here in New Hampshire, Mitt Romney is the fragile front-runner. At the Manchester forum, he was tieless, fluent and comfortable on economic themes. Most impressively, he didn’t try too hard—a trait that led, in the last election, to shape shifting. Romney is keeping a relatively low profile in New Hampshire—trying to attract neither attention nor attacks—which will only work as long as other Republicans allow it.


But the Republican race, while not yet open warfare, is still intense. The first competition is who will be the leading mainstream Republican who is not Mitt Romney, on the theory that Romney’s candidacy might eventually collapse under the weight of his Obama-like Massachusetts health care reform. Here Tim Pawlenty is the leading contender. Pawlenty has played the long game, frequently traveling to New Hampshire as a loyal McCain proxy during the last primary season.


As in Iowa, Pawlenty has a strong local organization, attracting support from across the party’s ideological spectrum. Pawlenty got approving nods in the Manchester audience for bluntly admitting that a cap-and-trade plan he supported as Minnesota governor was “stupid”—a straight-talk moment from the McCain playbook.


There is also a contest in New Hampshire to be the conservative voice—more likely to be rewarded with a Fox News show than the presidential nomination. Rick Santorum manages to be moralistic, tough and sophisticated. Michele Bachmann can’t be called sophisticated. At the forum, she argued that the federal budget could be balanced in one year, after an agreement worked out over a “long weekend.” She went on to say, “The American people aren’t children”—having treated the audience to magical assertions only credible to a child.


Many New Hampshire activists still hope for a savior who could transform the race—an outsider willing to go after Obama. This desire explains the brief, seedy Republican affair with Donald Trump. Serious Republicans talk of Chris Christie or Mitch Daniels. But key operatives and leaders in New Hampshire and elsewhere are currently making their choices. And they cannot choose the absent.


The Republican primary season is off to a slow start, slowed further by Obama’s recent triumph. But his re-election requires more than a bump. Obama needs an economic surge to undermine the strongest Republican case.


Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group; email michaelgerson@washpost.com.

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