Romney Likely Nominee If He Focuses on Economy, Ex-Lawmakers Say

Former New Hampshire Senator John Sununu and onetime Representative Tom Davis of Virginia said in an interview on Bloomberg Television’s “Political Capital with Al Hunt,” airing this weekend, that Mitt Romney most likely will be the Republican presidential nominee if he sticks to his pledge of reviving the economy, and predicted that conservatives probably won’t coalesce around rival Rick Santorum.

(This is not a legal transcript. Bloomberg LP cannot guarantee its accuracy.)

AL HUNT: We begin the show with two of the smartest Republican politicians in the land, former Senator John Sununu and former House Republican Campaign Chief Tom Davis.

Let’s certify. You are both good, loyal Republicans, as well as being smart. There’s no question of that. But I want to ask you both: Your party looks in trouble right now. This - this presidential race has gotten fractured. It’s gotten divisive. It’s gotten ugly. Is it threatening prospects for the fall?

TOM DAVIS: Look, it’s really early. And once you get a nominee and they give a speech in front of 25,000 people and they get on the debate stage with Obama, this stuff gets forgotten pretty quickly.

HUNT: So no problem, John?

JOHN SUNUNU: I don’t think so. Right now, and in particular, primaries almost always strengthen the candidates. Even the tough primaries strengthen the candidates. It brings up a lot of tough issues, but better they’re brought up now, because I want a candidate that is able to address tough questions - and everyone has their weaknesses - and articulate a message.

If there’s a problem, it will be because six months from now the nominee has trouble really articulating a clear, defined, focused message. But I don’t see that.

HUNT: We’re going - we’re going to return to that in just a minute, but, first, let me ask you about this. The brand name of Republicans, though, has deteriorated a lot in the last year. It’s in the 20s in most things now.

DAVIS: Al, it’s been bad for years.

HUNT: But it wasn’t - it’s a lot worse than it was when you won in -

DAVIS: They fired us in ‘06. They fired us in ‘08. They didn’t re-hire us in ‘10. They just put a check on Obama. Both parties are in the trash right now.

HUNT: They are, but the Republican brand name is even lower than the Democrats, and that’s low.

DAVIS: That’s because we got - that’s because we have our primaries going on right now, and it’s not a pretty picture. But we’re going to be just fine at the end of it.

HUNT: John, how about the payroll tax? What should the congressional Republicans do, just extend it? They got clobbered kind of in December, so what’s the best strategy now?

SUNUNU: And I think that they’ll get clobbered again if they’re not careful. This is a question of what can pass the Senate. Now, all legislation isn’t a question of what can pass the Senate, but when you have something that’s must-pass, right, we’ve got to get this done, and you have more than 60 senators agreeing to a full-year extension, you’ve got to pay attention to that. And if you’re in the House and you ignore that fact, then you’re going to be hung out again. You’re going to be left out. And you’re going to be in a tough position when it comes time to cut a deal.

HUNT: Do you agree, Tom?

DAVIS: I think, look here, the pain is mandatory, the suffering is optional. I think they’ve just got to get it behind them.

HUNT: OK. Let’s go back to the presidential race. Rick Santorum, he swept three primaries or caucuses this week, no delegates, but still three pretty impressive wins. There was pressure on him to get out of the race a week or two earlier from the Newt Gingrich people. Will there now be pressure on Gingrich to get out and conservatives coalesce?

DAVIS: No, look, Gingrich has some strong states coming up for him. He’s got Georgia coming up there, which ought to be a natural. He’s got perhaps Texas. We’ll see what the judges say on time. He’s got some southern states, Ohio, so this is just going to have to work its way out. It’s still hard for me to see at the end of the day how anybody but Romney gets the nomination.

HUNT: Well, do you think there’s any chance, John, conservatives - the movement conservative - will coalescence behind Santorum now?

SUNUNU: I think it’s unlikely, if only because we’ve seen that they haven’t been able to do it so far. They didn’t coalesce with Newt after South Carolina. They don’t seem to be coalescing with Santorum now. They obviously haven’t coalesced around Ron Paul. We’ve got two weeks, though, between now and the Arizona and Michigan primaries. A lot can happen in two weeks.

So, you know, I think you’ve got to watch and wait to see if either Gingrich or Santorum can somehow break out and make this a genuine two-person race.

HUNT: To get the kind of momentum that they need for those 10 contests on so-called Super Tuesday, one of them’s got to win or come awful close in Michigan or Arizona, don’t they really?

DAVIS: I think so. Michigan’s proportional, so I think you’ll see a lot of activity there. Just Santorum is a social conservative. His economics, I would say, are more so-so. But the heart of the party are social conservatives, and that’s where Santorum, I think, has a one-up on Newt with conservatives.

SUNUNU: But I think you’re right. Someone either has to beat Romney in one of those two states or the same candidate needs to run a pretty close second in both states and, again, define it as a two-person race going into the delegate-rich Super Tuesday.

HUNT: And money matters. I mean, there are reports now - we had a report today that Sheldon Adelson has basically told Newt, you know, we’re not giving any more -

SUNUNU: “I’m done.”

HUNT: Yes, close to that. And Santorum, on the other hand, the people are saying money’s coming in.

DAVIS: Well, money matters, particularly in primaries, more than general elections. We’ve seen races move 30 points in a week in this primary season, so money will make a difference, but particularly money on the ground, where you have an organization, not just TV money, which is the kind of money Santorum seems to be getting.

Romney’s strong on the ground, and that’s been his saving grace, is he’s had an actual organization in these states, where the others are kind of flying in with TV and parachuting in.

HUNT: And no one else other than maybe Ron Paul in some places has any organization.

DAVIS: I think that’s right.

SUNUNU: But I’ll say, I don’t think money will be as important in Michigan and Arizona, partly because the candidates now have two weeks. Those are the only two races on the day of February 28th. And so all the earned media, all the free media, all the press coverage will be out there focused on those two states, and the coverage will penetrate through to the voters in those two states. So money won’t be as important on February 28th as it will be on Super Tuesday.

HUNT: Let me ask this -

DAVIS: - absentee voting and all those kind of things that helped Romney in Florida. That made a huge difference.

HUNT: And you have it Ohio and other places. Now, there is, however, clearly, strong resistance to Mitt Romney. I agree with both of you that - and most people - he will be the nominee, but the resistance is just stronger I think than some of us expected. What would you have him do right now? If you were - if he says, all right, John, and then Tom, what’s the best thing I could do right now?

SUNUNU: Focus on the economic message and his experience. Those are his greatest strengths. That’s what people want to hear about. There is an important aspect to the social conservatives in the Republican Party, but still, broadly speaking, Republicans, Democrats, independents, people are focused on the economy. He needs to do that. He needs to be on the ground, be working hard, and they need to spend their resources effectively.

HUNT: Tom, what would you advise Governor Romney?

DAVIS: Well, first of all, you have to be yourself in this game. When you try to be somebody else, it hurts you. And I think that’s hurt him, to some extent, as he’s gone off-script a little bit. He’s become somebody different than who he - he’s very strong on the economic issues. Those are the issues of the day.

He’ll never be flavor of the month with the Republican Party, but he’s edible to all elements of the party at this point, so he’s got to also position himself for a general election. You go too far over, you take yourself out of the general. So he’s doing just fine. He’s got to understand, he’s not going to have the passion behind him at this stage, but I will tell you, once he’s nominated and you’re head-to-head with Barack Obama, the passion will follow.

HUNT: Speaking of Barack Obama, the White House seems -I wrote this week that there’s a lot of hubris there. They actually seem cocky. Should they be, Tom?

DAVIS: Well, of course not. And there are so many variables in the next 8 or 10 months, his numbers still under 50 percent, a long way to go in this race. It’s going to be a competitive race.

HUNT: John?

SUNUNU: Well, I think if there’s any reason that they’re showing a little bit of overconfidence, it’s because they’ve had, you know, a couple weeks’ worth of good jobs news, but it’s going to be a long summer. There’s going to be a lot of new economic news, and not just in the U.S., but having to do with the growth of China’s economy or the European crisis, the fall of the euro, et cetera, and those are things that are going to affect consumer sentiment.

So whatever you think the issues will be in November today, you’re wrong, because the two or three issues that drive the election, other than the economy, are yet to be determined.

HUNT: Hey, one thing I’m right on: You two lived up to your billing as two of the smartest Republicans around. Thank you very much for being with us.

SUNUNU: Thanks, Al.

***END OF TRANSCRIPT***

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