A perfect GOP candidate is hard to find

By Philip Elliott

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 22 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

WASHINGTON — Mitt Romney is the godfather of what Republican critics call Obamacare. Newt Gingrich is an adulterer on his third marriage. Tim Pawlenty is too green — environmentally, that is.

Jon Huntsman Jr. worked for President Barack Obama. And Haley Barbour has come off as dismissive of racial segregation.

Is any potential Republican presidential nominee without vulnerabilities that could alienate voters, especially those in the GOP primaries, and provide ready-made attacks for opponents?

Not in this crop.

The 2012 Republican field is deeply flawed, lacking a serious GOP contender without a personal misstep or policy move that angers the party base. Each of those weighing bids has at least one issue that looms as an obstacle to White House ambitions, and that could derail the candidate if not handled with care.

That explains why the would-be candidates are trying to confront their troubles early on, just as the nomination fight gets under way. They'll have to answer for black marks on their records — and insulate themselves from criticism — repeatedly between now and early next year when voters cast the first caucus ballot.

Their aides are trying to figure out how to weather the attacks likely to show up in mailings, online or in television ads; responses are likely to be included in media interviews, debate appearances and, perhaps, even in major speeches. Aides also are studying — and testing — the best ways to exploit their opponents' weaknesses. Already, Internet sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are magnifying their woes, and every embarrassing document, speech or utterance is certain to appear online.

Candidates can't simply ignore their flaws or obstacles; their challengers certainly won't.

Just ask Democrat John Kerry. He was vexed in 2004 by questions about his service in Vietnam and about his reputation as an elitist. Only after widely debunked claims about his Vietnam record started to sink his poll numbers did the campaign effectively respond — and by then it was too late.

"You really have to drive the boat into the fire and be fearless about your record," said Michael Meehan, a Democratic consultant on Kerry's campaign.

Romney, for one, has started to address his biggest policy problem: the health care plan he signed into law as Massachusetts governor, which Obama and the Democrats used as the basis for their national overhaul plan. The White House gleefully points out the similarities.

"Our experiment wasn't perfect — some things worked, some didn't, and some things I'd change," Romney said recently in New Hampshire. But, he added, "one thing I would never do is to usurp the constitutional power of states with a one-size-fits-all federal takeover."

Romney also will face a repeat of the 2008 criticism that he's inauthentic, particularly after a series of reversals on gay rights and other social issues.

Gingrich's two failed marriages are well-known; the circumstances around them may not be and present plenty of fodder for rivals.

The former House speaker sought a divorce from his first wife while she was undergoing cancer treatment. His second marriage ended with an admission of an extramarital affair as he was pursuing the impeachment of President Bill Clinton for lying about sexual encounters with a White House intern. He married that mistress, 23 years his junior. Callista Gingrich is prominently featured in his campaign, appearing with him at events and on his website.

He was widely mocked for this recent explanation about his infidelity: "There's no question at times of my life, partially driven by how passionately I felt about this country, that I worked far too hard and things happened in my life that were not appropriate."

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