This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 14, 2011 - WASHINGTON - One is a savvy Capitol Hill player who's on a first-name basis with just about every congressional Republican and knows the whip tactics of lining up support. The other is a brainy policy wonk who likes to hone in on complex issues and explain them to the public and fellow politicians.
They may have different strengths and priorities, but U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., and former Sen. Jim Talent of St. Louis have something in common: They are both influential players in support of presidential candidate Mitt Romney's campaign. And while both men are Missourians, their roles are more national than regional.
Blunt emerged last month as the point man in Romney's effort to garner as many endorsements as possible from lawmakers on Capitol Hill -- a task that comes naturally for a former House Republican whip who is now considering a run for a GOP leadership position in the Senate.
A "distinguished fellow" at the conservative Heritage Foundation and vice chair of a bipartisan research center on bioterrorism, Talent is a "senior policy adviser" who briefs Romney on a range of domestic and foreign-policy issues and often accompanies him at Republican candidate debates.
In separate interviews, Talent and Blunt agreed that Romney would likely put up the strongest fight against President Barack Obama in the 2012 elections.
"In presidential politics, I think the moment finds the man," Talent said. "This is a year when people are worried about the economy, they want to turn around the direction of the government, and they don't have much confidence in people who have spent their careers in government.
"And all those things work very strongly in Gov. Romney's favor. Everybody concedes his credentials on economics; he has spent his life turning around troubled institutions. That's his calling, really. And he spent most of his life in the private sector."
For his part, Blunt said Romney "is the best prepared for the job at this time, and I think he's the most likely to get elected in November." That's because the former Massachusetts governor "runs better among independents, he polls better in the suburbs, and he puts two or three states in play that would not be otherwise" within reach of a Republican candidate, Blunt said -- naming Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania.
Lining Up Support in Congress
Late last week, Blunt organized an initial, closed-door meeting of House Republicans who have either endorsed Romney or are leaning in his direction. "There are at least a couple of dozen House members that already have endorsed Romney," Blunt said. "And I think that -- now that the field appears to be set -- House and Senate members between now and the end of the year are going to focus on what they can do to help ensure that the direction of the government changes" in January 2013.
While most political headlines focus on debates, caucuses and primaries, some political scientists -- including the three authors of a recent book, "The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform" -- contend that endorsements provide the best early indicators of later success in primaries. And they rate the backing of governors, U.S. senators and House members fairly high on the influence scale.
Aside from Blunt, Romney's strongest Senate supporters include Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. Most senators are keeping their political powder dry until later in the primary season, as a leading candidate emerges, but Romney and others are actively pursuing an endorsement from Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Ia., before the important Iowa caucuses.
Aside from the high-profile endorsement he got this week from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Romney also has picked up scores of other endorsements in recent weeks from influential political figures in key primary or caucus states. Former U.S. Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and former Sen. Mel Martinez of Florida, a former chair of the Republican National Committee, announced their backing this week.
In Illinois, former U.S. House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert and current U.S. Rep. Judy Biggert also endorsed Romney recently. And the former Massachusetts governor announced a new advisory group on trade policy chaired by former Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.
Talent Briefs the Candidate on Big Issues
Talent, who earned a reputation as a serious policy wonk during his terms as a U.S. House member and a senator, said he "works mostly on the policy side" for Romney, whom he has backed for several years.
"I talk with [Romney] periodically and do briefings" on major issues, Talent told the Beacon. "I'm a senior adviser on both foreign and domestic policy for [Romney], and have been for a number of years," he said -- going back to Romney's unsuccessful push for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008.
"I also will represent him in different places with the media," Talent added. "And I generally try to be an older hand, a gray-hair around the campaign. I usually go to the debates and represent him" in the "spin rooms" with journalists and others who are covering the debates.
Talent also advises Romney's campaign staff about the political landscape in Missouri, where Romney's prominent backers include state Auditor Tom Schweich (for whom Romney headed a fundraising event last year); state House Majority Leader Tim Jones, R-Eureka; and major GOP donor Sam Fox, founder of the Harbour Group.
Both Talent and Blunt brush aside an early poll, released last month, indicating that Missouri Republicans favored Texas Gov. Rick Perry over Romney. Among Perry's prominent GOP backers is U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Tarkio. (As the Beacon reported, major GOP donors such as businessman Sam Fox, wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield and August A. Busch III attended a fundraising lunch for Perry Thursday in St. Louis.)
"I don't put much credence in the early polls, when the electorate is still very fluid," said Talent. "I think you'll see the support begin to harden over the next couple of months. And, obviously, Gov. Perry's situation has changed in the last few weeks."
Taking the long view, Blunt said he was "not concerned by the view that Romney is the first choice of 25 percent of Republicans and the second choice of 75 percent of Republicans," Blunt said. "Being the second choice of 75 percent may make you a better November candidate than if you were the first choice of 75 percent of Republicans."
If Missouri Republicans indeed switch from a primary to a caucus system, Talent said, it "certainly would make a difference in how we organize the campaign in Missouri. In a caucus state, there is more effort put into on-the-ground activities and probably a bit less into advertising."
"One of the strengths of this campaign is that we're running everywhere," Talent said. "We're going to have a strong effort in Missouri and we feel the governor will make a strong showing. He's going to have a strong core of support everyplace, and I think we're going to win our share of primaries."
Right Candidate at the Right Time?
Blunt, a former history teacher, likes to expound on his theory that American voters tend to shift directions every generation or so and that presidential politics reflect that shift. Saying that the "retooling clock" is indicating it's time for a change, Blunt predicts that next year's election will be "particularly important" in deciding the direction the nation goes for the next two or three decades.
"About once every generation we have this kind of debate," he said. "And I think that, more and more, members of the House and Senate are seeing [the election] as no ordinary time. A debate of this size and this importance is not likely to come around again for quite a while. So I think members [of Congress] are going to want to be involved for the candidate they think can do the job -- and also can be elected to the job."
Added Blunt: "I think the closer people look at Romney, the more they are going to see how he matches the leadership needs at a time when our economy is struggling. This is likely to be an election about the economy and the lack of leadership of the current president. In that kind of election, Republicans need to have a candidate who can keep the focus on those two big issues."
Talent, who passed up an opportunity to run for the GOP nomination to oppose Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who defeated him in 2006, said he had no regrets about focusing more on policy issues.
"Particularly in the area I feel such a passion for -- national security -- I felt I really could add much more outside [of Congress] than inside."