Campaign Crawlers

Lower Tier Troubles

Jim Gilmore's presidential campaign illustrates the challenges faced by conservative candidates with lots of ideas and little money or organization.

By 4.6.07

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By now, the conservatives' dilemma in the 2008 race is familiar: The three media-approved frontrunners -- Rudolph Giuliani, John McCain, and Mitt Romney -- all have problems with the right on several major issues. Yet the candidates in the race with the strongest conservative credentials lack the money, organization, and name recognition to go the distance.

Dissatisfaction with the current field has shown itself in various ways. A recent New York Times poll indicated that nearly six Republicans in ten wanted more choices. Draft movements for candidates not yet in the race keep springing up, as the GOP waits for a leading man like Fred Thompson -- or even Newt Gingrich -- to come to the rescue.

Why is it so hard for conservatives to find a presidential prospect who is true to their principles but can also win? An answer could be found by looking at Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore's presidential campaign. From life to taxes and guns to terrorism, Gilmore can claim to be mainstream conservatism's main man.

Conservatives have often praised Gilmore's record. As governor, he signed a partial-birth abortion ban as well as legislation requiring parental notification and a 24-hour waiting period. In a local Terri Schiavo-like case, he fought to keep coma victim Hugh Finn's feeding tube from being removed.

In addition to famously cutting the car tax, Gilmore deserves credit for 15 other tax reductions, including one that offered relief to military families. The former Republican National Committee chairman is pro-gun -- he serves on the board of the National Rifle Association and is an anti-amnesty, enforcement-first Republican on illegal immigration.

On Iraq, the issue Republicans tell pollsters they consider most important, Gilmore strongly supports the troops' mission and rejects the notion that a fast pullout is the answer. And he is not without anti-terrorism credentials of his own, leading the Gilmore commission and serving as president of USA Secure, a nonprofit group that organizes technology and infrastructure companies who deal with the day-to-day operations of homeland security. Gilmore also ran the National Council on Preparedness.

So why is this staunch conservative eating Giuliani's dust? Because Gilmore is a textbook example of a candidate who is good on the issues but plagued by low name recognition, lackluster fundraising, and a campaign organization that can't hold a candle to the top tier hopefuls'.

For starters, his campaign operation is floundering. With virtually no staff and little money, Gilmore is in no position to be an effective candidate.

Consider his attempt to reach out to grassroots conservatives at CPAC last month. Spending some time with the campaign, I observed very little communication between members of the so-called staff, in what can only be described as a fly by the seat of your pants type of operation. The day of Gilmore's reception, one in which literally hundreds of people would show up to meet the governor in person, his staff was behind the scenes, scrambling to buy beer at the local liquor store just minutes before the event.

Gilmore's booth at CPAC was anything but presidential. The banner for it had been ordered by the staff just hours before the reception, only to have word come down that another banner had already been made somewhere else and at twice the cost. Peter Foster, Gilmore's special assistant, has known the governor for the better part of a decade but knew little about his public policy stances, much less where the candidate was going to appear at any given time.

I asked Kieran Mahoney, general consultant to the Gilmore campaign, to shed some light on why the governor had not yet opened a New Hampshire campaign headquarters and had cancelled his next two trips to the state with the first presidential primary.

"I think it's a waste of resources," he told me. Apparently, Mahoney's idea of a waste is to spend time in one of the most important states in the race, to which nearly every candidate has given some attention -- except Gilmore. This careful stewardship of campaign resources hasn't paid off in the polls, where Gilmore is often stuck at 1 percent. Nor has it exactly been bringing in the crowds on the hustings.

While Gilmore did manage to pull in $200,000 at his first fundraiser, don't expect an announcement that he is nipping at Romney's heels. His spokesman Christian Josi told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "We are not playing the first-quarter game."

Like so many lower-tier Republican candidates, Gilmore says the right things. Unlike some others, he actually has a record of doing them. But a campaign like this can't beat McCain or Giuliani, much less Hillary Clinton.

When I asked Gilmore what he made of the hurdles that face him in this race, he merely responded, "I don't need a lot of pomp and circumstance. I don't need to pretend I am something I'm not."

But that pomp and circumstance is precisely what is putting the frontrunners, as unsatisfactory as they may be, so far out ahead. A winning candidate needs more than convictions.

If the Republican primaries next year end up pitting ideals against electability, I wish every conservative luck.

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About the Author

Melanie Harmon is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.