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Robert Bennett: Do not dismiss 'style' in politics

Published: Monday, July 29 2013 3:15 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this June 27, 2013 file photo is seen in New York. A rift over national security is developing in the early stages of the Republican Party's next presidential campaign, putting libertarians at odds with hawks who cite the 2001 terrorist attacks. Christie is warning that a growing libertarian streak among both parties is dangerous. He points to the widows and orphans of his home state who were affected by the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Julio Cortez, AP

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New Jersey's and Virginia's off year gubernatorial elections have often been harbingers of elections to come. In 1993, both states went Republican, signaling the GOP sweep of Congress in 1994; in 2005, both went Democratic, signaling wide Republican losses in 2006. Observers are watching both campaigns very closely again this year, looking for omens for the future.

In New Jersey, incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Christie currently enjoys a double-digit lead. That is a major turnaround from his first years, when he was battling to reshape New Jersey's sputtering economy and change that state's employee pension systems.

In Virginia, there is no incumbent in the race. The Republican candidate is Ken Cuccinelli, the attorney general and a hard line tea party supporter. The Democrat is Terry McAuliffe, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and a close Clinton confidant. Polls show McAuliffe with a slight lead.

Thus, while New Jersey, one of the most solidly Democratic states in the Union, appears to be embracing a conservative Republican, Virginia, once a Republican bastion, is currently tilting the other way. The difference between the two Republican candidates is not really ideological; Christie and Cuccinelli both push for lower taxes, entitlement reform and spending restraint. It's more a matter of style.

Christie has been very clear about his conservative views but careful not to be insulting to those who disagree with them. He began his term by making Steve Sweeney, the Democratic president of the New Jersey state Senate, his "closest and best friend in all the world." He also called in the heads of the labor unions in the state who had opposed him in the election and told them that he wanted to put that aside and work with them for the good of New Jersey. With the exception of the teachers' and state employees unions, all of them are supporting him this time.

Cuccinelli, on the other hand, started his term as attorney general by being very combative with anyone who disagreed with him on anything. He's escalated the rhetoric since then, which helped him win the nomination in a party dominated by the right. However, his image as a rigid extremist has hurt him with the moderate Republicans, Independents and less ideological Democrats who control general elections in Virginia. Only now, with polls showing him trailing, has he started to stress his stand on less ideological issues such as transportation policy.

Some dismiss the relevance of "style" in politics, insisting that the only thing that matters is "standing on principle." Christie's response is very insightful. "Never compromise your principles," he says, "but be willing to adjust your assumptions." I would add also be wise enough to know the difference.

Gov. Christie's prime example of a politician who knew the difference between standing firm on principle and being flexible on assumptions is Ronald Reagan. To one who complained that the media was biased against conservatives, Christie replied, "Blaming media bias for our defeats is an excuse, not a reason. The media was biased against Reagan and he carried 49 states." Reagan's style of treating his opponents as equals to be dealt with rather than heretics to be condemned contributed significantly to his electoral success, as it has to Christie's.

Polls are now starting to be run on the 2016 presidential race. Republicans who think that election will turn on ideology alone need to prepare to adjust that assumption. At the moment, the only Republican running neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton is Chris Christie; a big victory for him in a blue state in 2013 could be a serious omen about the power of his style.

Robert Bennett, former U.S. senator from Utah, is a part-time teacher, researcher and lecturer at the University of Utah's Hinckley Institute of Politics.

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