Monday, January 15, 2007

Jim Gilmore for President? It’s Not an Easy Sell

By Stuart Rothenberg

Article II of the Constitution says that the President of the United States must be a “natural born Citizen” who is at least 35 years old. So far, so good for former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore (R), who announced this week that he is forming an exploratory committee for a possible 2008 presidential campaign.

Having watched former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean run a stunningly effective early campaign in his bid to win the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, I am trying to remain open-minded early on when considering long-shot candidates for president.

Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.)? Sure, he’s a 10-year Senate veteran who might be able to take advantage of a vacuum on the right in the GOP race. Democratic Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Joseph Biden (Del.)? They’ve been Senators for 26 and 36 years, respectively, so they have earned the right to be treated seriously as Democratic contenders.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R), outgoing Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack (D) and New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson (D)? They are or were reasonably popular two-term governors, which means they aren’t stuck on Capitol Hill and can run as successful chief executives. Give them a chance to see what they can do.

But Gilmore? I don’t think he fits in the same category. Still, let’s look at his pluses and minuses before jumping to a conclusion.

Gilmore, 57, holds undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Virginia. He was elected Commonwealth’s Attorney in Henrico County — suburban Richmond — in 1987. Six years later he was elected Virginia Attorney General, serving one term in that office before winning the governorship in 1997. He left four years later having successfully divided the state GOP into warring factions during a budget crisis that he helped create — and alienated enough voters that Democrat Mark Warner was elected to succeed him.

Gilmore then served briefly — from January 2001 to January 2002 — as Republican National Committee chairman. Gilmore widely was assumed to have been installed at the RNC because Bush political strategist Karl Rove assumed that the former governor would be little more than a figurehead, while Rove really ran the committee. But Gilmore didn’t see things that way. As a former governor, he was accustomed to making decisions and having others defer to him. When Rove realized that he and Gilmore had different views of how the committee should be run, the former governor had to go. “It was a disaster from the start,” says one GOP insider familiar with the situation.

Gilmore chairs a commission created by Congress called the Congressional Advisory Panel to Assess Domestic Response Capabilities for Terrorism Involving Weapons of Mass Destruction. He also formed a nonprofit, the National Council on Readiness and Preparedness.

Shortly before Christmas, Gilmore indicated his interest in a 2008 run. He told The Associated Press, “There is not a committed conservative in the field who can put together a national campaign. I am and I can. I have people on the ground right now in Iowa and South Carolina.” Veteran Virginia political operative Boyd Marcus and New York political strategist Kieran Mahoney are involved in Gilmore’s early planning.

Gilmore’s tax-cutting record would be a plus for Republican caucus and primary voters, and the opening on the right in the battle for the GOP nomination could be a lure: The two early Republican favorites, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, aren’t exactly movement conservatives.

But caucuses and primaries aren’t only about ideology. They also are about candidates, organization and money.

Maybe time has distorted my memory, but I don’t remember him as being a dynamic, inspiring conservative speaker. Others I have spoken with remember him much as I do.

Sympathetic Republicans, however, say Gilmore is “very disciplined” and “plain-spoken,” and one media professional recently argued that Gilmore has been “terrific” as a “junkyard dog” on TV. That, combined with his ability to play to a partisan crowd, would be a strong asset for Gilmore.

Gilmore never has demonstrated the fundraising muscle that McCain or Romney have, and he also is far, far behind those rivals in lining up activists in the key early states. And there are other obstacles: Despite his service on the weapons of mass destruction commission, Gilmore, like most governors, has no direct foreign policy experience. And few outside of Virginia have ever heard of him.

In other words, Jim Gilmore begins with no name identification, no money and no organization. And that army of vaunted Virginia GOP operatives that once was mentioned as an asset for former Sen. George Allen (R-Va.)? Well, they don’t look quite so intimidating now.

Gilmore’s chance of winning the GOP nomination would be based on a single scenario: Romney doesn’t sell to conservatives, while McCain, for one reason or another, doesn’t make it to Minneapolis, Minn. Under those circumstances, lightning could strike anyone who is (or was) a candidate, even Jim Gilmore.

I find it awfully difficult to take seriously a presidential wannabe who left office having divided his own party and alienated voters, and who begins with no major assets except his alleged strategic positioning on the right. Jim Gilmore surely has a better chance of becoming a nominee than Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), but that doesn’t make him a major player for ’08 in my book.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on January 11, 2007. Copyright 2007 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.