MANCHESTER, N.H. –- It's the difference between “Listen to me” and “Look at me.”
Watching Haley Barbour and Tim Pawlenty court voters in the Granite State is a study in contrasts -- and of two men wrestling with their own shortcomings as they pursue the 2012 Republican nomination for president.
Here comes Barbour: folksy, a little cautious in his first trip here this year but brimming with experience and savvy. There goes Pawlenty: his brow furrowed, looking a little distracted when it comes time to discuss the finer details of public policy.
The Mississippi governor’s events are pure retail politics. A house party, an appearance on the Charlie Sherman radio show, breakfast at a local haunt, a gun shop visit and a low-key stump speech in a run-down industrial park.
The former governor of Minnesota, meanwhile, steps into full-scale rally mode at two large events embroidered with stump speeches and media glad-handing.
Each of them has their burdens. For Barbour, 63, it’s his identity as a white, male conservative from the deep South. For Pawlenty, 50, it’s a perceived charisma deficit.
To overcome his challenges, Barbour knows he will have to visit New Hampshire repeatedly, courting voters and hoping they overlook the accent wrapped around his words. Pawlenty is reinventing himself as a larger-than-life Tea Party figure whose staff lionizes him with movie trailer videos.
The stakes are high. If frontrunner Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts, falters here, one of these two men could likely take New Hampshire and thereby make a serious bid for the nomination.
They enter the fray at a time when Republicans are caught between powerful cross currents: a push for a return to conservative orthodoxy mixed with with an equally strong desire to deny President Obama a second term. These two factors often seem to work against one another. Each candidate considered to have a serious chance of beating Obama -- Romney, Pawlenty and Barbour lead the pack -- has a blemish on his record he’ll have to explain to the Tea Party.
Whether Barbour or Pawlenty actually can snare the nomination remains an open question.
Barbour can fill a bigger war chest than Pawlenty. The elaborately networked politician has set a fundraising goal of $55 million for the primary compared to Pawlenty’s $25 million.
But Mississippi's leader hardly looks presidential. He’s a short, rumpled, good old boy, and his deep southern roots are his biggest challenge. Some in the GOP doubt he will run at all.
Pawlenty, on the other hand, looks like a commander in chief -- almost. But, plagued by doubts about whether he has true presidential charisma, he can come off like a stunt double rather than the genuine article.
Barbour’s thick accent removes all doubt that he is from the deep South. At Riley’s Gun Shop, the tale of a buddy’s complaints about a hunting obsession goes like this: “This turkey-hunting’s about to cawst me my jawb and rune my marriage.”
Cawst. Rune. Jawb.
“When you hear him, you know he’s not from around here,” said Kevin Smith, a square-jawed former state representative who now runs a family values political action group. “Northeasterners like people who sound like them, who look like them.”
On the stump in Nashua and in Concord, Pawlenty strained to reach an elusive, statesmanlike timbre despite his campaign's many trappings. Being loud and aggressive didn’t seem entirely natural to him, and locals here sensed the disconnect.
“Leadership isn't presented or spun. It's felt,” said Charlie Arlinghaus, who runs a conservative think tank in Manchester and who had breakfast with Barbour and a few others. “When people get to know you they can sense it. Or not.”
If history is a guide, grandstanding at big rallies is also not the way to win over New Hampshire’s famously skeptical voters.
“What it comes down to in New Hampshire is the retail politicking,” observed Smith. “It’s how you do in the house parties, the coffees, the one-on-ones.”
THE DETAILS GUY
Haley Barbour counts on a retail approach here. His strategy -- if he decides to run by the end-of-the-month deadline he’s given himself -- will be based largely on John McCain’s guerrilla tactics from the 2000 and 2008 campaigns. McCain won the state both times by meeting as many voters as he possibly could. In 2008, his work on the ground brought his candidacy back from the dead.
The man who guided McCain through the state both times, Mike Dennehy, now works for Barbour. It was Dennehy who set up his boss’ disciplined, check-the-box New Hampshire schedule. Barbour did the rest.
Attendees at a house party hosted by former McCain supporter Jayne Millerick, a past state GOP chair, were impressed by Barbour’s personal touch.
“He’s a master at knowing names,” said state Sen. Gary Lambert (R-Nashua), who attended the Millerick’s house party.
“To me, who finds that difficult to do, that’s impressive,” Lambert said. “It makes everyone believe the candidate cares about you personally. That’s what all voters want. That gets votes.”
Barbour also tried to hit the right cultural notes. He had former Red Sox player and childhood friend Jerry Moses on hand at one event to attest to his bona fides as a Sox fan. He noted over breakfast at Chez Vachon, a landmark diner in a neighborhood still rooted to its French Canadian immigrant past, that his great-grandfather lived in France before moving to Ireland.
“So you’re French-Irish?” Arlinghaus joked as Barbour ate two eggs, over easy, with wheat toast and tea.
TV coverage of Barbour's visit focused on how well he responded to Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf oil spill as governor of Mississippi. That could become what one operative working for another candidate called his “touchstone,” a way to introduce himself to voters and unpack the rest of his resume.
And Barbour’s hidden weapon when talking to voters is a grasp of policy, an ability to talk at length and in detail. A power player in Washington for nearly three decades, he’s had the time to acquire a knack for it. He’s also confident about conservative arguments.
“If we make the 2012 election about policy,” he said, “we’ll win, because the American people know we’re right.”
Barbour routinely hit on four key themes: economic policy, tax policy, energy and health care. He blasted Obama’s economic policies and his health system overhaul. On energy, he endorsed the idea of greener production and boasted that his state has the nation’s first coal-fired power plant with “commercial steel, carbon capture and sequestration.”
“We need to burn it cleaner, but at the same time we are the Saudi Arabia of coal, and on our way to becoming the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” he said. Regulations, he warned, shouldn’t slow down the development of “hydraulic fracturing, the new technology that has increased our natural gas supplies so tremendously by making gas available that we didn’t know we could get.”
He displayed budget mastery when defending House Speaker John Boehner’s (R-Ohio) deal with the White House, which has come under fire from the right for delivering less than the $38.5 billion in spending cuts GOP lawmakers initially promised.
“One of the things they talk about is the several billion dollars that didn’t get spent on the Census. If you cut that out of the budget is that a real cut? Well, don’t kid yourself that a lot of money gets reprogrammed in the federal government,” Barbour said. “That’s Commerce Department money that the administration probably can reprogram. But once you take it off, it’s gone.”
Barbour also defended cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency, citing from memory the agency’s annual budget numbers before and after Democrats in Congress dramatically increased its funding for 2010.
He also had a clear position when asked about a Senate proposal to amend the Constitution so Congress would be required to balance the federal budget each year.
“I think it’s a good idea … but it’s not a panacea,” he said, noting the measure would not prevent considering using tax increases to close deficits. But he would relish the argument, he added.
Barbour did not mention immigration until he was asked. Yet when prompted, he did engage on an issue that could cause him problems down the road, due to his past lobbying of Congress on behalf of the Mexican government.
While noting his priority was to control the nation’s borders, he then suggested Congress set up a guest worker program once the flow of illegal immigrants into the country subsided.
“We need to think about the 12 to 14 million people who are here illegally, and what are we going to do about the need for labor that we have in a lot of places in the United States,” he said. “We are not immune to what’s happening in Europe. We’re not immune to what’s happening in Japan. We have an aging population. We’re going to have a labor shortage in the United States down the road … We need to be prepared.”
“We also have industries today … that are dependent on guest workers. We need to have a good program for that,” he said. “We’re going to have to keep up with them to make sure they pay their taxes, to make sure they don’t go to jail.”
“And if they go to jail, they’ll lose their right to stay here as a guest worker.”
He also refused to say Obama had acted improperly in launching attacks on Muammar Gaddafi’s forces in Libya without congressional approval, invoking actions taken by Ronald Reagan in the 1980s.
“I want to be fair and play it straight with you: When Libya had some aircraft that attacked American vessels in the Gulf of Sidra in the mid-eighties, Reagan shot them down. Didn’t ask Congress,” Barbour said. “And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. But there is clearly a place where there is a limit to what the president’s executive powers can take you to. And I’m not going to make the argument that he went beyond the limit. But I hope his taking the forces back means that he recognizes that we should not get involved in a civil war in Libya.”
Tim Pawlenty plays it safe. His speeches are short and peppered with applause lines and well-worn, call-and-response moments.
“Have you had enough of big government and big unions and big bailout businesses, scratching each others' backs and asking you to get your wallet out to pay for their recklessness and stupidity?” Pawlenty asked a Tea Party crowd during a rally outside the state capitol in Concord. The audience yelled back in the affirmative.
“Let’s send them this message: ‘Don’t tread on me.’”
It would be hard to be more predictable. But Pawlenty is trying to embrace the Tea Party, to become the candidate they turn to after giving up hope on several lesser-known options like Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.) or Herman Cain, the former Godfather’s Pizza CEO.
The Tea Party carries weight in New Hampshire. Grassroots organizers claim they can bring out up to 50,000 voters in a primary that will consist of 250,000 to 300,000 voters total, and some in the political establishment agree.
Pawlenty will quickly cater to Tea Partiers. He has said for months that Congress should not raise the debt ceiling when the federal government hits its $14.3 trillion limit. He also doubled down on his criticism of Boehner’s budget deal in Nashua.
“They’re having a debate over whether they should spend $3.5 trillion or $3.6 trillion, or somewhere in between. It doesn’t even make up any difference in the pie chart to speak of,” Pawlenty said, though he pegged the deal as Obama’s. “The nonpartisan congressional budget office comes out today and says, ‘That’s not going to cut $38 billion out of the budget this year.’
“You know what the number was? $362 million. So we got a lot of work to do.”
At the Nashua event, Pawlenty’s staff passed around a clipboard to collect email addresses from attendees. The Minnesotan hopes to recruit new supporters and volunteers at larger events, building momentum virally through online channels -- a model perfected by Obama’s 2008 campaign team. (Barbour’s staff was not using similar tactics, though they said they will soon should Barbour indeed run.)
Pawlenty’s high-flying approach has yielded some results. Admirers flocked to him after both events, and supporters waited long after his Nashua speech so he could sign copies of his book, “Courage to Stand,” and pose for pictures.
Moments like this cause some observers here to find a hint of magnetism surrounding Pawlenty.
"He’s evolving from a policy-type candidate to being more of ... a leader in terms of emotion and policy,” said Ovide Lamontagne, an ascendant political figure here who narrowly lost the GOP Senate primary last year and is expected to run for governor in 2012. “That’s important to show that."
According to the famous “Buckley Rule,” Republicans should vote for the most conservative Republican candidate who has the best chance of winning. Pawlenty, the man with the least baggage who hews most closely to the conservative grassroots party line, may prove to be that candidate.
COURTING THE SKEPTICS
However adept he may be at working the coffee shop circuit here, residents met Barbour with a fair share of skepticism.
Denver Woodcock, a 64-year old employee at Riley’s Gun Shop, asked Barbour whether he would be interested in running as the vice presidential nominee under someone like Romney. After Barbour said that “nobody runs for vice president,” Woodcock continued to extol the idea of a Romney/Barbour ticket to Dennehy, who stood smiling gamely beside him.
Woodcock said he thinks Romney “has the best chance of winning the election.”
Voters also quizzed Barbour about Mississippi’s troubled relationship with race. At his industrial park appearance, Katherine Prudhomme, a stay-at-home mother of two, asked him why his state still flies the Confederate flag. Barbour moved as quickly as he could to dispatch the question, referring to a referendum showing 69 percent of voters favored keeping the flag.
“Voters voted on it and that’s that,” he said.
Prudhomme said afterward that Barbour “didn’t really answer the question.”
“He didn’t give me his opinion. If he does choose to run, that will come up again,” she said. But she also added that Barbour’s southern heritage is “not the first thing I’m going to look at.”
“He seems like he’s a fair guy,” she said. “He’s obviously seems to be good on business, finance, the economy, education. I’m going to give him an A on that stuff.”
Lamontagne, who witnessed the exchange, said he thought Barbour should have been more expansive in his answer about the Confederate flag.
"Nobody running for office should dismiss these issues," he said. "I want to hear more about perhaps his experience in dealing with racial relationships ... I think that’s going to be something people will look at."
Lamontagne said that "even if the perception is that you’re in relatively white New Hampshire," the state is more diverse than it has been in the past.
It’s still early for most voters, and both Pawlenty and Barbour have some time to hone their approach. But with the primary process beginning much later than it did last cycle, a significant course correction would be more difficult for either potential 2012 candidate than it was for John McCain in 2008.
Many conservatives find both men wanting.
However, a new bullishness exists on the right that may put Obama in a more vulnerable position. After a few good months, the president’s approval rating is once again under water -- below his disapproval rating -- similar to polling numbers around the midterm elections that ushered Republicans into Congress.
So for candidates like Barbour and Pawlenty, essentially blank slates, New Hampshire may be a chance to capitalize on what matters most to voters.
“Between Pawlenty and Haley, I don't know who is better known in New Hampshire,” said Rep. Jim Waddell (R-Rockingham). “The main issue is still the economy.”
This article originally misstated the meaning of the "Buckley Rule" and has since been corrected.