GOP's 2012 Strategy Against Obama

Finding the right candidate to carry an 'us vs. them' message.

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Approaching the 2012 presidential election, Republican Party insiders are increasingly stuck on the biggest hurdle they face when strategizing against President Obama. The debate: What kind of presidential candidate should the GOP nominate? Granted that conservatives and not moderates will rule the primaries and caucuses, practically guaranteeing one of their own will win. But does passion trump job experience? Should they stick with their old winning hand of picking a governor? Maybe a senator or House member? Is it finally time for a businessman, à la Ross Perot or Steve Forbes?

Influential conservative Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, prefers an experienced governor. "They can raise more money. They have a base," says Norquist. "They have employed people, fired people, and unlike CEOs of major corporations, they have done so in a politicized environment." And "they have done things; senators have only voted to allow other people to do things." That would favor former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, and Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, while barring potential candidates like Sen. John Thune, Rep. Mike Pence, or former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum.

But Thune, Pence, and others like Sarah Palin have a strong conservative message, say those who think message tops experience. "The issue for 2012 on the Republican side is not so much about what a candidate has done in their political career so much as whether they understand the argument at stake," says former GOP aide and biographer Craig Shirley.

An ally of former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, another likely candidate, says passion plus experience is the winning combo. "The country wants to create jobs, grow the economy, cut taxes, restrain spending, and balance the federal budget," says the Gingrich associate. "Newt actually achieved all those things as speaker."

GOP consultant Frank Luntz adds that the message is key. "No GOPer can win the nomination without demonstrating that 'I get it,'" he says. "It will be a Washington vs. Us election and the best nominee will be closest to 'us.'"

GOP campaign pro Mary Matalin agrees. Among Republicans, she says, "there is less real tension—that is to say, vote determinant—out there in the final analysis. In the end, the only choice is against them."

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