WASHINGTON -- If you talk to conservatives around D.C., and they ignore conventional wisdom and give you a pure "wish list" of the candidates they most want to win this fall regardless of how polls look now, three names stand out: U.S. Sens. Rick Santorum and Jim Talent of Pennsylvania and Missouri, respectively, and Ohio gubernatorial candidate (currently Secretary of State) Kenneth Blackwell.
Here's saying that none of the three is a lost cause.
First, let's examine Santorum's predicament. For months he has led every list of "most vulnerable Republican Senate incumbents." Recent polls still put him behind opponent Bob Casey Jr. by low double-digits. Cognoscenti say that Santorum is suffering politically not just because he is a make-no-apologies conservative in a slightly left-leaning state, but also because he gives off an air of arrogance and a refusal to listen even to the friendliest of critics.
But consider that a senator who stands on conservative principle amidst all the Beltway pressures needs a rather thick skin of a sort that often comes off as a form of arrogance. On issue after issue after issue, Santorum has stood firm while others caved in. Most insiders, for instance, say that Santorum has been particularly impressive in pushing within the Senate leadership for diligence in confirming conservative judges. As disappointing as the Senate's performance on that issue has been, word is that it would have been even worse without Santorum there. And that issue will almost certainly be of crucial importance in the next two years: Santorum on Sept. 26 told a group of conservative bloggers that he fully expects "at least one more vacancy in the next few years" on the Supreme Court.
As for Santorum's political prospects, it's worth remembering that when he first ran for the House, the NRCC thought he had so little chance that it virtually ignored his race -- but he came from behind to win, on his own. Then, when he ran for Senate the first time, he was again seen as an underdog -- and he won again. Then he won re-election in another tough year. This time around, his fellow Pennsylvanian senator Arlen Specter a few months ago at a Spectator dinner gave a "guarantee" that Santorum would win. Said Santorum to the bloggers two weeks back, "We have an incredibly strong grassroots organization."
All of which is why if Santorum is within even six points in the final pre-election polls, he has a chance to pull out the victory. If he is within five points, I predict he will actually win. The little-understood reality of this election year is that conservatives are being under-polled. If you asked me, for instance, if I am happy with the job that President Bush is doing or that the Republican Congress is doing, I would say "no." But if you give me a good conservative to vote for, I will go out of my way to vote for him. And if you put Bush on the ballot versus a liberal Democrat, I will still vote for Bush even without much enthusiasm -- and I will make more certain to go to the polls in the first place because I have a conservative (like Santorum) to vote for. I think lots of people are like that. Finally, what is misunderstood is that non-ideological voters will respond to strong conservative appeals from candidates who are clearly people of integrity who say what they mean and mean what they say. Ronald Reagan showed that conservative candidates, boldly presented, attract "swing" voters.
SOME OF THE SAME CONSIDERATIONS give Ken Blackwell more of a chance to win the uphill battle for the Ohio governorship than is generally acknowledged. Blackwell also has a tremendous grassroots organization, which includes significant support in black churches. (He claims to have earned around 40 percent of the black vote in each of his three previous statewide elections, all of them successful, in Ohio.) "We're going to win the African American community," he told a group of conservative bloggers on July 25. "We're going to start the great re-alignment."
Plus, Blackwell has the sort of charisma that inspires volunteers to go all-out to elect him. He's an imposing, impressive figure, yet he's personally very approachable and warm. And he has a way of making his words stick: He not only makes good sense, but he is effective at making listeners understand that he makes good sense. Among his gems from his conservative-blogger interview in July: "It's a simple principle: Capital seeks the path of least resistance and most opportunity." And: Ohio's "regulatory nightmare" and high taxes have created a situation where "risk taking has itself been put at risk." And: "The flip side of poverty is wealth creation....There is an upward-mobility tradition in our society" -- a tradition he intends to tap into. And: Poor people, especially African Americans, must "build an asset base that actually wins the war on poverty." And, thank goodness: "I don't govern by the editorial pages."
On economics, Blackwell melds the best of Jack Kemp and John Kasich. On cultural issues, he melds the best of Lynne Cheney and Bill Cosby. All of which is why conservatives say they can't afford to count Blackwell out until the last vote is counted.
FINALLY, LET US CONSIDER Sen. James Talent of Missouri, whose talent as a legislator should count as an ace in the hand.
If readers will excuse a personal digression, I use that "ace in the hand" language deliberately. I first became a particular fan of Talent's one day about a decade ago when I found myself sitting in for two or three hands of a bridge game with Talent and several other Republicans. My bridge game was rusty and I was out of my league, but I knew enough about the game to recognize the excellent mind of a truly fine player when I saw one. That excellent mind belonged to Talent -- and, in truth, skill at bridge is a relevant one for a lawmaker. Forget the game's musty image as a relic of aging grandparents: Played right, it requires every bit of the "people skills" and boldness of poker, but at a far higher intellectual level.
A good bridge player, like a good legislator, remembers not just where the cards are but how each player has wielded them in past hands -- and must be both highly effective analytically and able to communicate well with a partner who may have different ideas. And while it may be a cliche, there really is something to say, both in bridge and in Congress, for knowing how to play one's cards well. Bridge requires many of the same tactical skills that are necessary for effective legislating. They are skills sorely lacking in the Republican leadership today.
Meanwhile, conservative insiders know James Talent as a man of high principle and integrity. He's a conservative through and through, but he's impossible to portray as an extremist. Instead, he has a record, Reagan-like, of working effectively across the aisle for conservative ends. A great case in point is the legislation that he and J.C. Watts spearheaded, when Talent was in the House of Representatives, to create "community renewal" projects that effectively amounted to the next generation of Jack Kemp's famous "empowerment zones." One problem was that then-President Bill Clinton wanted credit for inner-city renewal, but he kept pushing versions of the idea that involved typical liberal giveaways more than real market incentives and personal responsibility. It took about five years of patient negotiation, but Talent, aided by a superb hand-picked staff, held firm for including both conservative economic and conservative cultural elements in the package.
Indeed, when Joe Lieberman was chosen as Al Gore's running mate in 2000, one reason a group called "American Atheists" sharply criticized the choice was that Lieberman was a chief co-sponsor of what the atheists called "the 'Talent-Watts' bill" which, the atheists sourly noted, "would use a combination of tax credits and government grants to promote faith-based drug and alcohol rehab programs and other outreaches."
In the end, Talent and Clinton reached an accord and the bill was made law -- mostly along Talent's more conservative lines.
Talent also had a large hand in designing the wildly successful welfare reform law of 1996.
For months now, Jim Talent has been running about even in the polls with popular challenger Claire McCaskill. But he thoroughly outclassed her in a recent debate, and he is accustomed to the rigors of races that go down to the wire. It is near-universal wisdom among national conservatives that his re-election campaign is the linchpin for conservative legislative hopes in the next Congress.
Every pundit in the land knows that Talent can win his race. Every knowledgeable conservative will try to see that he does.
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