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Published: Monday, 8/22/2011

COMMENTARY

Passion in the campaign

COLEBROOK, N.H -- It is in the nature of politics and of New Hampshire that things should heat up just as they cool down.

Now the days are shorter, the evenings cooler, especially here in what is known as the Great North Woods. But the stakes are growing, the debates becoming hotter.

There's a new wrangler in the presidential race, Gov. Rick Perry of Texas, and he's the talk of many of the towns -- the great hope for some, the great worry for others. If you're just an observer of things, you can conclude that in the great scheme of things he is a great American character one way or the other.

Already he has fulfilled every fear and hope, widening the definition of treason, thinking out loud about the fault lines in the global-climate debate, crowding others off the stage and, with the help of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota, out of the Republican race.

It remains to be seen whether this political cycle will be the GOP's to claim. But right now, Republicans are dominating the conversation. They have the passion and the sense of purpose.

The miracle of the season is that President Obama is in the role of defender of the old order. His determination to try to recapture the offensive with a September speech only underlines the urgency that is gripping the Obama camp.

So even though all the talk right now is of Mr. Perry and Ms. Bachmann (and let's not forget former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, still the putative front-runner), the election is and always will be about Mr. Obama.

He's not doing well by any reasonable and conventional measure -- and that's without considering the peculiar challenge he faces because of the erosion of electoral votes in states he took in 2008 but which, because of population changes, would provide a smaller payout in 2012.

Presidents have limped toward re-election fights before and prevailed. Harry Truman did that in 1948 against greater odds than Mr. Obama faced; who thought the Democrats could win a fifth consecutive race with the party split so badly?

The better example might be the Obama hero, Abraham Lincoln, who was no sure bet for re-election in 1864, with the Civil War still grinding on, vital questions about slavery still unresolved, and a former general running as a peace candidate for the Democrats.

Mr. Truman and Mr. Lincoln became emblems for their respective parties by staying the course, an old political phrase revived by President Ronald Reagan, who didn't look like a cinch for re-election at this stage of the 1984 campaign, but who nonetheless won 49 states.

But many embattled presidents don't make it to that second term. Two recent examples are telling. The one that makes Democrats cringe is Jimmy Carter, who lost to Mr. Reagan in 1980 in an economic environment (deficits every year, frightening energy prices, high unemployment) that is arguably less severe than the one Mr. Obama presides over.

The one that gives Democrats pause is George H.W. Bush, who was defeated by Gov. Bill Clinton of Arkansas in 1992 as the deficit soared. Today the elder Mr. Bush, his health faltering but his uncommon chivalry still robust, is a bit of a bipartisan hero, and yet he left the White House after only four years.

Mr. Obama faces another challenge, perhaps the most ironic one of all. Since the Reagan years, passion has become an important element of American politics. Mr. Obama was passionate in the 2008 campaign, and anyone who was in a room or hall with him was rendered passionate by his performance.

As President he has shown grace and intelligence, but he's leaned toward the precise and away from the passionate, and it's a strain to recall even a sentence he has uttered in the White House that can match Oscar Wilde's goal of having "struck one chord to reach the ear of God."

That's why the ear of politicos twitched with fascination when, just the other day, Mr. Perry said, "I get a little bit passionate," adding: "I think you want a president who is passionate about America -- that's in love with America."

That one phrase may have been the most meaningful yet uttered in Campaign 2012, for it was a swipe at Mr. Obama's cool demeanor even as it raised questions, so congenial to the hearts of conservatives and so galling to liberals, about whether the President isn't more a critic than a defender of America.

Ms. Bachmann and Mr. Perry lead the polls in passion. Mr. Romney leads the pack in money. The question this year, not only for Mr. Romney but also for Mr. Obama, is whether money can buy you love. And whether passion counts.

David Shribman is the executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Contact him at: dshribman@post-gazette.com.



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