Political insider offers insight on presidential race

GOP Khachigian offers tales from the campaign trail
The Colorado Statesman

Even though he’s had an insider’s view of nine presidential campaigns, the man who wrote President Reagan’s inaugural address admits that he would be foolish to predict what will happen as this year’s race unfolds.

“I don’t have a crystal ball,” an affable Ken Khachigian told a crowd of Republican donors at a fundraiser in Denver last Friday. “The reason that there’s no crystal ball is, we’ve got almost six months to go in this election. Especially in this new cable news, 24-7 talk radio cycle, things move very, very quickly.”

Still, he suggested how to make sense of the contest between presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney and President Barack Obama, and, while cautioning that “there’s no operating manual for presidential elections,” offered up plenty of free advice for Romney, gleaned from his high-level positions in nearly every election since Richard Nixon’s 1968 run.

Ken Khachigian, who served as chief speechwriter and a senior White House advisor for President Ronald Reagan, talks to Colorado Republicans at a fundraising luncheon.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

Khachigian, a senior partner with Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, based at the powerful law firm’s Orange County offices in California, regaled Republicans with tales from the campaign trail and inside the Oval Office at a luncheon sponsored by the Colorado GOP’s Capital Club.

Former U.S. Rep. Bob Beauprez tells members of the state GOP’s Capitol Club that Colorado will be crucial to Mitt Romney’s prospects in the fall election during a fundraising luncheon on May 18 in downtown Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

As a veteran Republican operative perhaps uniquely suited to provide a long view on presidential politics — he peppered his remarks with references to Nixon’s regrets that his 1960 running mate had to take regular afternoon naps and how the last-minute selection of Spiro Agnew eight years later proved to be a drag on the ticket — Khachigian cautioned against getting carried away with the day-to-day shifts and instead urged Republicans to keep the end game in focus.

House District 3 candidate Brian Watson and Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck managing partner Bruce James visit at a meeting of the state GOP’s Capitol Club fundraising group on May 18 at Maggiano’s Little Italy restaurant in Denver.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

He recounted a sampling of the dominant political stories over the past couple months — a whipsaw narrative ranging from the battle over contraceptives to the anniversary of Osama bin Laden’s death, with a detour through the Supreme Court’s hearing on health care legislation, winding up at that day’s flurry over whether the Rev. Jeremiah Wright was fair game —and reckoned that all the commotion won’t amount to much when it comes time to vote.

Park County Republican Party officials Dick Elsner and Gary Bartel, who is a candidate for county commissioner, visit with state GOP Chairman Ryan Call at a fundraiser for the party on May 18.
Photo by Ernest Luning/The Colorado Statesman

“For the political junkies, this is a side show that you can enjoy… but in reality, the last 10 to 14 days of the campaign are what’s going to determine the outcome,” he said.

Noting that Reagan lagged in the polls until only a week before winning the election in a landslide, Khachigian warned against celebrating victory or lamenting defeat too early.

“Those of you who can only remember Ronald Reagan’s great victories — 1980 was a close election, until the very end,” he recalled. “We were behind in mid October and we didn’t necessarily have a road map then to victory.” What turned it around, he said, was the simple phrase “There you go again” in the final debate against President Carter.

“I don’t know what the game-changers are going to be for 2012,” Khachigian said, adding that no one else does, either.

Khachigian suggested that Romney seems amiable, a trait he shares with Reagan, and one that can work to his advantage.

“The thing Obama doesn’t have going for him is that the public might not like or love Romney, but it’s going to be hard to hate him,” he said. “I don’t think they’re going to get people to hate Romney, because he has that genial personality that deflects that.”

Republicans, he said, need to stay “relentless” on the economy, in particular pointing to college graduates who can’t find jobs four years after they voted for Obama. In a similar vein, he encouraged the Romney campaign to focus on what he termed “buyers’ remorse,” reminding voters who were excited about Obama that their hopes have been betrayed.

Khachigian also advised Romney against “getting into the weeds on the issues,” and instead keep the spotlight on kitchen-table topics.

“I would not want to talk about Dodd-Frank,” he said, referring to financial reform legislation that Republicans have promised to repeal. “I would not want, for that matter, to talk about the Paul Ryan budget,” he added, noting that hardly anyone outside rarified political circles knows who the Wisconsin Republican is, much less what makes up his budget plan.

“You don’t need to talk about the Euro, you don’t need to talk about the Greek crisis, you don’t need to talk about European socialism — those issues are all disconnected from the lives of people,” Khachigian said. “When they go to bed at night, they don’t wake up in the morning thinking about Dodd-Frank. That’s Washington stuff, that’s insider stuff, and I think Romney needs to stay away from it.”

As for the key decision Romney might make before the election, Khachigian said his vice presidential pick needs to adhere to the medical maxim: “First, do no harm.” He suggested that Romney could announce his running mate “way, way ahead of time,” rather than risk a “feeding frenzy” that could distract from the fall campaign.

The ideal vice presidential nominee, he said, should exhibit loyalty, stamina and discipline, be able to stay on message, and not be too unconventional.

“The vice presidential running mate is like the mother of the groom at the weeding,” Khachigian cracked. “They should wear beige and shut up.”

Ernest@coloradostatesman.com