That’s the message congressional Republicans facing the prospect of sharing a ballot next year with Rick Perry have for the newest GOP presidential candidate.
In a series of interviews, uncommitted Republican members praised the Texas governor’s economic record but called his suggestion that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is guilty of treason a serious misstep and said that kind of inflammatory talk could scare off swing voters.
House Republicans from heavily suburban districts were particularly uneasy about the Bernanke remark and Perry’s refusal to say whether President Obama is a patriot. These members, some of them facing potentially tough re-election campaigns next year, urged the White House hopeful to stick to core issues of jobs and spending.
“You can’t be calling Bernanke a traitor and you can’t be questioning whether or not Barack Obama loves America, that type of thing,” said Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee and veteran Long Island incumbent. “I’ve been with Perry a few times, and I can see how he could project, again, if it’s done the right way. But no, if he continues this, he’ll have a tough time.”
Rep. Charlie Bass (R-N.H.), who lost his seat in the 2006 Democratic sweep only to win it back in last year’s Republican resurgence, represents the Boston suburbs that line his state’s southern border and bridled at the Bernanke statement.
“Intimating the Federal Reserve Chairman is guilty of treason is not going to create more confidence in voters about you,” said Bass, whose father also served in Congress. “I would suspect Gov. Perry regrets that statement.”
Peter Roskam (R-Ill.), the Chief Deputy Whip and an emerging political powerhouse in suburban Chicago, added of the treason reference: “That’s not something you want to lead with if you’re trying to get independents to come your way. I would imagine that he’s thinking through his strategy.”
Home for the August recess – though they all prefer to call it the “District Work Period” – the Republicans said activists in their districts were still assessing the options in a presidential race that has been remarkably fluid. But all three said GOP voters were upbeat about their White House prospects and focused on a matrix of fundamental issues.
“People are looking for the jobs contrast, the regulatory contrast, and the spending contrast,” said Roskam, noting that Perry’s “great strength is going to be the jobs argument.”
And that’s why so many Republicans sighed when the Texan, after an impressive weekend campaign roll-out, suggested Bernanke be given a measure of frontier justice. It underscored Perry’s biggest potential weakness in a general election – what some worry is a “cowboy problem.”
“This is a very critical period for Perry,” said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), a former National Republican Congressional Committee chairman and longtime political strategist. “He’s got to prove he won’t self-destruct. There is only one race like the presidency and that’s the presidency. He’s been playing Triple-A ball until now.”
None of the Republicans interviewed said they would rule out backing Perry and each offered praise for the Texan, only saying he needs to find the right tone for a national campaign.
“I’ll tell you why Rick Perry could have a shot, as long as he refines himself a bit – if he tones down slightly, he could,” said King, adding that Perry has the “biggest potential to capitalize on” Obama’s “lack of leadership.”
“Perry does a really good job of capturing the anger and angst of Republican primary voters right now and he’s got a good record to run on,” added Cole. “But he’s having to move onto the national stage more quickly than most candidates.”
For his part, Perry seems to have already gotten the message. He didn’t disavow his Bernanke comment but he hasn’t brought it up again since Monday and has been notably more restrained in his public comments on the campaign trail this week in New Hampshire.
“The governor was expressing his frustration with the current economic situation and the out of control spending that persists in Washington,” said Perry spokesman Mark Miner. “Most Americans would agree that printing and spending more money is not the answer to the economic issues facing the country.”
As for Perry’s language, Miner said that “the governor is going to continue talking about getting America back to work in a tone that everyone understands.”
But the inclination to say such things as he did about Bernanke and take other hard-line positions has election-minded Republicans hesitant about embracing his candidacy.
Sen. John Cornyn, the National Republican Senatorial Committee chairman, was notably cool toward his fellow Texas Republican in an interview Thursday.
“He is entitled to some credit, but not alone,” Cornyn told conservative talk show host Laura Ingraham about Texas’s economic success. “There are other people who have been very instrumental in directing our state in the proper direction: George W. Bush, the Texas legislature, all of our elected leadership here.”
Attempting to capture control of the Senate by winning elections in jurisdictions far from Perry’s native Paint Creek, Texas – places like Massachusetts, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Michigan – the last thing Cornyn needs in an otherwise promising year is a presidential nominee scaring moderates away from the GOP ticket.
Republican members of Congress are overwhelmingly undecided about who they want to be the party’s standard-bearer. But they’re certain about two things they don’t want: a nominee who could drag down their own prospects and the wrath of local activists who would be unhappy if their congressman picked a candidate whom they don’t like.
“There’s not a lot of upside in getting involved in a Republican primary when there is so much fluidity,” said Cole. “You don’t want to inadvertently alienate your own activists by picking a presidential candidate other than the one they chose.”
Talking freely on background, other members said they could get behind Perry in part because Republicans in their districts like him and in part because of the alternatives.
“He is not my type, but I suspect I have a lot of constituents who will like him,” said one moderate Midwestern Republican of Perry. “And in spite of the fact that I do not agree with him on numerous issues, I suspect he’d be better than Michele.”
Added another House Republican of Perry: “He’s clearly a regional candidate.”
The challenge for congressional Republicans, though, is if not Perry who? Some would prefer Romney, seeing him as a better fit for purple America, but others are still holding out hope other candidates will get in the contest before the end of the year.
Paul Ryan, the much-buzzed-about House Budget Committee chairman, gets high marks from his colleagues though some doubt he will ultimately get in.
“I think Paul is so important where he is right now,” said Cole. “This would be getting into the race sooner in his life and later in the cycle than I would have advised him to do. But he’s somebody I really think highly of. If he got in the race I would look long and hard at him.”
Added a fellow committee chair of Ryan: “I do like and respect him a lot, but I would be surprised with his young kids if he jumped in.”
Roskam sounded a similar note. “I think he’s got to make a decision largely around what’s good for his family – his family comes up frequently in these conversations,” said the three-term Republican. “But Paul Ryan is a real thought leader. His getting into the race changes the dynamic. A guy like Ryan sells in suburban Chicago. “
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