Obama campaign adviser says Republican field eager to criticize president, not offer new ideas

WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s chief campaign strategist is dismissive of the Republicans who want his boss’ job, saying they are eager to criticize the Democratic incumbent without offering substantive ways to help the country.

David Axelrod said it’s too early to start sizing up the competition, but he took on the emerging field of candidates when asked to assess the Republicans’ first major debate of the campaign season last Monday in New Hampshire. Republicans at that forum condemned Obama’s handling of the economy and pledged to repeal his health care overhaul.

“There seemed to be a unanimity of antipathy toward the president,” said Axelrod, who left the White House this year to return to Chicago to work on the re-election campaign. “I didn’t hear a lot of ideas,” but rather “a lot of pat partisan platitudes,” he told CNN’s “State of the Union” in an interview taped earlier and broadcast Sunday.

Axelrod seemed intent on going after former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the perceived front-runner, and citing the support that former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, a Republican who was Obama’s ambassador to China, had given the president.

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Romney, who sought his party’s presidential nomination in 2008, already faces questions from his rivals about his record of changing positions on social issues including abortion and gay rights, shifts that have left conservatives questioning his sincerity. In addition, Romney championed a health care law enacted in Massachusetts that’s similar to Obama’s national health overhaul, which conservatives loathe.

“It’s not unusual in politics for people who are ambitious to change their points of views on fundamental things to try and win an election,” Axelrod said in the broadcast interview. “But that’s not what people want in the president of the United States.”

By contrast, he said, Obama is “one of the most consistent people that I’ve ever met.”

Huntsman’s moderate stances on some issues and his service in the Obama administration could hurt him with the Republican Party’s right-leaning base. Huntsman is set to officially enter the race on Tuesday.

Axelrod said that when he was in China in the fall of 2009, he had a chance to talk with Huntsman. “He was very effusive about what the president was doing. He was encouraging on health care. He was encouraging on the whole range of issues. He was a little quizzical about what was going on in his own party. And you got the strong sense that he was going to wait until 2016 for the storm to blow over.”

Axelrod said that “obviously circumstances change. So I was surprised when he emerged as a candidate. But certainly I take him seriously.”

Later Sunday, Huntsman spokesman Tim Miller responded: “Axelrod’s comments are absurd. Gov. Huntsman’s record on health care and the economy (was) the opposite of President Obama’s top-heavy, government-centric, failed approach. That is the record he will run on.”

Assessing the Republican debate, Axelrod said Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, “who was relatively unknown, probably did herself some good there.”

He noted that some politicians who weren’t yet candidates may join the race. “That will add to the fun,” he said.

One candidate in waiting is George W. Bush’s successor as Texas governor, Rick Perry, who is drawing much interest, even though he is not in the race. Perry is courting party activists, operatives and donors still shopping for the strongest challenger to Obama.

Perry’s appearance Saturday at the Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans offered yet another tantalizing hint that he’s ready to upend a crowded field of candidates who have worked months to amass name recognition, organization and campaign cash.

“I stand before you today as a disciplined conservative Texan, a committed Republican and a proud American, united with you to restoring our nation and revive the American dream,” Perry said during an address that repeatedly drew the crowd to its feet.

He sounded every bit a candidate.

“Our shared conservative values, our belief in the individual is the great hope of our nation,” he said.

Perry, the longest serving governor in Texas history, has long insisted he wouldn’t run. But in recent weeks, he has softened his refusals and his advisers have started laying the groundwork for a campaign in Iowa, whose caucuses kick off the nomination selection process.

Perry planned a national day of prayer in Houston, a move seen by Republican insiders as a play to evangelicals who are an important part of the party’s base, particularly in Iowa.

Perry advisers characterize it as a coin-toss whether he enters the field in the coming weeks.

The coyote-shooting, tough-talking ex-Democrat has never lost an election. Perry assumed office as governor in December 2000 when Bush resigned to become president and was elected to full terms in 2002, 2006 and 2010.

As Perry waits in the wings, some of the already announced candidates were doing their best to build support at the New Orleans conference.

They included three favourites of the small government, anti-tax tea party movement – Bachmann, who enjoys strong support among social conservatives; former pizza executive Herman Cain; and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas, a champion of the party’s libertarian wing.

They all hit similar messages about making Obama a one-term president, repealing his health care overhaul and lowering taxes.

Absent from the New Orleans event were the nominal front-runner, Romney; Huntsman; and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Romney has assembled a strong organization and is expected to produce impressive fundraising results in the latest reporting period. But questions about his record and authenticity give some hesitation.

Despite his perceived front-runner status, Romney finished in fifth place in a straw poll of participants at the New Orleans conference with 74 votes. Paul finished first with 612 votes. Huntsman received 382 votes to finish a surprising second. Bachmann collected 191 votes and Cain got 104 votes.

Republicans’ pining for new candidates has so far resulted in disappointment.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee decided to skip the race. Real estate tycoon and reality TV star Donald Trump flirted early and then left. Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and the party’s 2008 vice-presidential pick, still has not said what she will do.


Associated Press writers Philip Elliott in New Orleans, Brian Bakst in Minneapolis, and Thomas Beaumont in Des Moines, Iowa, contributed to this report.

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