Forget "dud." Dan Bartlett swears he's very impressed with the Republican presidential field. Appearing on NBC's "Today" show a day after The Trail reported on his harsh assessment of the GOP candidates, the former White House counselor insisted his party has a good set of contenders.
"The performance yesterday demonstrated that we have a strong, deep field," Bartlett said, referring to the Michigan debate. "I am confident that -- "
Matt Lauer interrupted. "Whoa, wait a minute. Am I hearing backpedaling there in the background?"
"Absolutely not," Bartlett insisted.
The Trail reported Tuesday on Bartlett's previously-unreported speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, saying that Fred Thompson has been the campaign's "biggest dud," Mitt Romney has "a real problem in the South" because of his religion, Mike Huckabee is challenged by a funny name and John McCain could end up winning New Hampshire but losing the nomination.
Bartlett this morning did not walk away from any of those comments, but couched them in softer terms. "Each candidate has a hurdle," he said. "The president I worked for in two presidential campaigns had hurdles to overcome. That's part of this process. And the good thing is as we talk about these issues, as we work through the liabilities some of these candidates may have, it's going to produce a better candidate."
Bartlett gave Thompson a good review for his first debate performance. "I thought he did very well. In fact, my point was there are high expectations for him. I personally didn't think that waiting as long as he did to get into the race was a good move. But he came out yesterday, did very well, got stronger as the debate went forward and I thought he performed at a high level."
He had a little advice for Rudy Giuliani: "Well, I would just say keep the cell phone off. But besides that, keeping the focus on the Democrats and keeping the message tight."
And he downplayed Romney's Mormon problem, saying it would not be an insurmountable challenge. "He's talking very openly about the issue of his religion," Barlett said. "That's going to be something on the minds of the voters."
Romney appeared on the show just before Bartlett and dismissed the issue of his religion, saying polls show that he can do well in key states regardless. "It's going to be an issue on people's minds but I think in the final analysis, the people of America are not going to choose their leader based on what church they go to. They want to know their values and the values I have are as American as you're going to find."
-- Peter Baker
Washington Post editors
October 10, 2007; 12:51 PM ET
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