Nation & World

Three Republican campaign strategists say the battle’s just begun

4 min read

Iraq, Mormonism, and health care topped the agenda Monday night (March 5) in a 2008 presidential campaign preview featuring top aides to three Republican hopefuls in the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum.

Campaign strategists for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, U.S. Sen. John McCain, and former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani said that the Iraq War will continue to dominate the national political stage through the 2008 race.

If questions from the audience are any indication, however, health care and Romney’s Mormon faith will also be major issues, at least in the race for the Republican presidential nomination.

The event featured Alex Castellanos, senior campaign adviser for the Romney for President campaign, Rick Davis, chief executive officer for the McCain Campaign, and Chris Henick, adviser to the Rudy Giuliani Presidential Exploratory Committee. ABC News political director Mark Halperin, a visiting fellow at the Institute of Politics (IOP) and the Joan Shorenstein Center for the Press, Politics and Public Policy, was the moderator.

IOP director Jeanne Shaheen introduced the event, saying it is part of a series looking ahead to the 2008 presidential race. While Monday’s event focused on Republican campaigns, top strategists for Democratic candidates are scheduled to appear at a similar event in the coming weeks.

With the election still nearly two years away, Halperin said it’s not unusual for presidential campaigns to be getting up and running. What is unusual, he said, is the intensity of the early campaigning.

“It is already a very competitive race,” Halperin said. “This has already started out very fast.”

Despite the fast start, the panelists kept the event collegial, not criticizing other candidates, offering cautious responses to some questions, and declining to answer questions on specifics on some of their candidates’ positions. Halperin defended the lack of details, saying the campaign is in an early stage when detailed positions are still being crafted and that the panelists’ expertise is in campaign strategy, not policy issues.

On certain large issues, however, the strategists appeared well-versed.

Davis was clearest on the Iraq War, saying that though McCain disagrees with how the war has been conducted, he believes that failure in Iraq is not an option for the United States and that it is imperative that the United States leave the nation with a stable, functioning government. He also said, however, that the United States must commit the number of troops necessary to do the job or go home.

Henick’s response focused on the need for civilian support for the military mission, emphasizing the need for a functioning civil society in Iraq, which has unemployment rates as high as 50 percent. Castellanos agreed that all three candidates want success in Iraq, but said that the American people don’t need a “policeman” in office. Other issues that make America strong internationally, such as economic power, are important as well, he said.

Part of the event focused on campaign nuts and bolts such as the primary calendar and candidates’ specific plans in the early caucus state of Iowa, where McCain has been joking with crowds that he’s been “drinking a lot of ethanol,” Davis said.

The Romney and Giuliani campaigns expect McCain to be the early fundraising leader, while Castellanos said fundraising has been successful enough that the campaign has not discussed tapping Romney’s personal wealth.

The panelists agreed that the Internet and new ways of communicating with voters are continuing to transform how campaigns are conducted, while Davis downplayed McCain’s announcement that he was officially in the race on David Letterman’s show, saying it was “declaring the obvious.”

When asked about Romney’s Mormon faith, Castellanos said that voters have to become familiar with all aspects of Romney’s personality over the course of the campaign. Castellanos responded to a questioner critical of the Mormon church’s track record on diversity, saying that institutions change over time, and that the Mormon church is changing. Castellanos said the American public, however, doesn’t want a candidate to change his or her religious convictions just for political gain. He advises Romney to just be who he has been his entire life.

“The challenges that face this country are so much bigger than any one religious persuasion,” Castellanos said. “We’re going to appeal to every religious faith, to every campus group.”

In response to audience questions, the strategists agreed that health care — both at home and internationally — will be an important campaign issue. The details of the debate, however, remain to be determined, they said, declining to discuss specifics such as the nursing shortage.

“It’s obviously going to be hotly debated,” Davis said.