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Talent joins Romney in N. Hampshire, Iowa

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 11, 2012 - WASHINGTON - Four years ago, former U.S. Sen. Jim Talent was at the candidate's headquarters in New Hampshire when Mitt Romney's high hopes for the GOP presidential nomination were dashed by a loss to Sen. John McCain.

On Tuesday evening, Talent -- new a senior adviser to Romney -- got to experience the thrill of victory at the campaign's election night party, congratulating Romney for winning 39 percent of the New Hampshire vote and becoming the first non-incumbent candidate to win both that state's primary and the Iowa caucuses.

"It was an excited atmosphere; everybody was very happy," Talent recalled in a phone interview on Wednesday. "And it was particularly good because it sort of reversed the results of four years ago, a disappointing evening when Romney lost to John McCain."

Talent added: "There's no question that it was a big victory for Romney. To have won in both Iowa and New Hampshire -- albeit narrowly in Iowa -- is a historic kind of achievement. And it does bode well for his prospects in the future.

"But the Romney campaign is, appropriately, not taking anything for granted. And South Carolina is not a state he did well in the last time," when Romney placed fourth. "He's got to go there with his message and campaign very strong and hope to do well."

The bottom line, Talent said: "I don't think it's a done deal" for Romney to win the GOP nomination. "But I think he took a long step forward."

After last week's near-tie between Romney and former Sen. Rick Santorum in Iowa, some experts saidthe GOP race might continue long enough for Missouri's caucus and Illinois' primary -- both in March -- to be significant players in determining the final outcome.

Talent said that is not yet clear.

"Will Missouri's decision in the caucuses have an impact? Well, it could," he said.

"I think the chances that this race will end earlier are somewhat higher than they were two or three weeks ago. But I don't think anybody should assume that this think is going to be over" by early March. "Ask me after South Carolina and Florida."

Talent said "it's quite possible" that Romney will make an appearance or two in Missouri. "They make those decisions very short term," he said. "But Missouri figures to be a state in play in the general election as well as potentially in the primaries.

"I do expect that we will see him, but I don't know exactly when."

Talent, Blunt Both Support Romney's Candidacy

Last month, Talent campaigned for Romney in Iowa, returning a week ago for the caucus results there. In New Hampshire, he did not campaign but served as Romney's surrogate in media interviews and other forums. He said he had no present plans to campaign for Romney in the next primary states, "but that could change."

Another prominent Romney backer from Missouri, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., called Romney's win this week "a historic victory, as Mitt Romney is the first non-incumbent Republican candidate to win both Iowa and New Hampshire."

Blunt, who has had considerable success in spearheading Romney's efforts to gain backers on Capitol Hill, said in a statement to the Beacon:

"There's a lot of enthusiasm and momentum surrounding Gov. Romney's candidacy due to the fact that he's uniquely qualified to help jumpstart our economy and he's the best candidate to win against President (Barack) Obama next November."

Talent declined to handicap the rest of the GOP contenders, but he told the Beacon that Newt Gingrich went "much too far" in directly criticizing Romney's former leadership of Bain Capital in comments this week.

"He attacked Gov. Romney in a way that attacked the operation of the free enterprise system," Talent said of Gingrich's comments. "If we want a nominee who will attack the free enterprise system, in my view we already have one with President Obama. We don't need a Republican nominee to be doing that."

Last month, Talent was among Romney's surrogates who went on the attack against Gingrich, who he described at the time as "not a reliable or trustworthy leader."

In an appearance Wednesday on ABC's "Good Morning America," Romney said Gingrich's attack may have backfired. "I think their argument fell flat here in New Hampshire," Romney said of Gingrich and Rick Perry. He later told "Fox and Friends" that Tuesday's results show that "this kind of attack on free enterprise is simply not gaining traction."

While Obama's political strategists plan to attack Romney on his private-sector work if Romney emerges as the GOP nominee, Talent asserted that Romney's job-creation record at Bain "has been a big plus in the campaign and I think it will continue to be that."

While the Romney campaign is not identifying one particular candidate as his main GOP rival, Talent said the numbers show that Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex., has done the best other than Romney. "He is the leading alternative to Gov. Romney now. But it's basically divided," said Talent, who served in the U.S. House with Paul in the 1990s.

"I like him and I agree with him on some issues," Talent said of Paul. "But I disagree very strongly with many of his views on foreign policy," which tend to be isolationist.

In an article Tuesday, Politico referred to Talent as among the "prominent Romney backers [who] for the first time began sounding notes about party unity." The article quoted Talent as saying that "if we reach a point where the verdict becomes clear, it's important for everybody to unite. I don't think we're there yet, but we've taken a major step toward that point."

Another prominent Romney surrogate in New Hampshire was former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who withdrew from the GOP presidential race last fall. After the New Hampshire vote, he said, "People are going to have to now start to think about how do we best unite the party."

Talent told the Beacon that Obama will be "a formidable opponent" for any GOP nominee but believes Romney would be well positioned to win the White House in November. "Gov. Romney is well thought of by independent voters, and he can pull the Republican party together and unite the party," Talent said.

"He is in a good position to run a strong race against President Obama, but it's going to be a very difficult and formidable race."

Rob Koenig is an award-winning journalist and author. He worked at the STL Beacon until 2013.