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Former GOP senators from Missouri back Romney but disagree on his chances

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, March 8, 2012 - Three former Republican U.S.senators from Missouri support Mitt Romney for president and believe he’ll capture the GOP nomination.

But the three — Jim Talent, Christopher “Kit” Bond, and John C. Danforth — don’t exactly see eye to eye on his chances to win the White House.

Talent is enthusiastic about Romney’s qualifications as “the best candidate to deal with the nation’s problems” and upbeat about his chances to defeat President Barack Obama in November.

Bond came on board Thursday by endorsing Romney as “the only one who can defeat President Obama, restore conservative principles to the White House, and provide the leadership our country needs.”

But former Sen. John C. Danforth said in an interview Thursday that he’s become increasingly pessimistic about the chances of Romney or any Republican hopeful of ousting Obama. “Along with about 90 percent of Republicans I know, I’m in a real depression,” Danforth said. “I’m afraid in the presidential election, we’re blowing it.”

Danforth cited the national political focus on contraception, which he said has diverted the party and its candidates away from the bigger issues — which he believes are of more concern to the public — about the size and cost of government and the shape of the economy.

The assessments of Romney’s chances come as the former Massachusetts governor and his three remaining opponents — former Sen. Rick Santorum, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, R-Tex. — gear up for the next round of primaries and caucuses. They include Missouri’s caucuses, most of which  begin on March 17.

In an interview Thursday, Talent — a senior adviser to Romney who has campaigned for him in several states — said he is “very much hopeful” that Romney will campaign in Missouri before the caucuses begin. Romney has been in Missouri to raise campaign money but has yet to hold a public campaign event in the state.

“A major effort is now underway in Missouri” by the Romney campaign, said Talent. “Now that Missouri is one of the next states choosing delegates, the Romney campaign is working aggressively” to recruit delegates, choose county coordinators and conduct training sessions to prepare for the Missouri GOP contest.

“We’ve lined up county coordinators in virtually every Missouri county,” he said.

While Romney lost badly to Santorum in the Feb. 7 non-binding Missouri primary, Talent dismissed that vote as “an exhibition game where only one team played” — a reference to the fact that Santorum made appearances in the state while Romney focused his attention on states actually choosing delegates.

“I don’t think anybody thought that vote really represented the true level of Mitt Romney’s support” in Missouri, he said.

Talent said that Bond's endorsement, announced Thursday, was another sign of the strength of Romney’s political support, which includes most major Republican elected officials in the Show Me state. “The range of his endorsements — in Missouri and nationwide — show the depth of his support as the right person to deal effectively with the nation’s problems,” Talent said.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., who strongly backs Romney and is his point person for lining up endorsements in Congress, told reporters this week that Missouri’s caucuses have turned out to be “more important than most people thought” because Romney — although far ahead in the delegate count so far — hasn’t yet locked up the GOP nomination.

“They’re going to be more important than they would be if there was only one candidate left at this point or if it was absolutely clear that only one person could be the nominee,” Blunt said.

In endorsing Romney, Bond said in an interview Thursday that the former businessman and Massachusetts governor has what it takes to tackle the nation’s problems and defeat Obama.

For his part, Romney responded in a statement that he is proud of Bond’s backing because “Kit has been a distinguished public servant and voice for limited government for many years. In the coming months, I look forward to his counsel so that I may bring a message of a smaller, simpler and smarter federal government to all Missourians.”

In an interview, Bond said, “The challenge is: Who gets this country out of its economic mess? Mitt Romney has demonstrated in the private business sector, in the 1992 Olympics, and as a governor that he fits what this country really needs. He stands head and shoulders above everybody in the field."

Bond said he’s confident that the GOP nominee, presumably Romney, would have "a very good" shot at defeating Obama in November. He regards the recent debate over contraception as a side issue and said Romney and other Republicans would do best to focus on "the much broader issues of the economy and Obamacare, which is scaring small business across Missouri" because of the potential costs of its mandates.

"As the presidential campaign develops, I think you'll see more and more of a contrast between Obama's economic philosophy — which I believe is not the right one — and that of Mitt Romney, who wants to make this country work as it can work. I think continued unemployment and the slow economic growth have shown that we are no longer an opportunity society."

Danforth says he understands why Republicans objected to the provision in the new federal health-care law that initially required all employers — except churches and religious institutions — to provide insurance coverage, including access to contraception. The mandate now has been changed so that insurers must offer the coverage directly if employers have religious or moral objections.

But Danforth said that “the way it’s been portrayed publicly,’’ the issue has shifted from religious freedom to access to contraception. 

And in any case, Danforth said the debate has diverted the Republican Party and its candidates away from the bigger issues of “how much government do we want. How much do we want to pay for it? What percentage of GDP is government going to spend, and how much power is it going to have, and should it be investing in venture capital efforts like Solyndra, and is it too heavy on regulation?”

He also laments “the race to the right” by the presidential contenders, as each tries to “persuade the so-called Republican base that the other guys aren’t nearly conservative enough.”

The upshot, said Danforth, is: “I don’t know how to win an election unless you get more votes than the next guy. And I don’t know how you get more votes than the next guy if 20 percent of the population is extraordinarily enthusiastic, and the rest are being sick.”

Danforth acknowledges that Romney wasn’t his first choice. He preferred Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels and noted that he lobbied Daniels vigorously – even traveling to Indianapolis to talk to him face to face.

Does Danforth have any advice for Romney? “He doesn’t ask my advice,” the former senator said.

Danforth emphasized that he heartily opposes Obama’s re-election and will support the Republican ticket. ”Obama is moving the nation exactly in the wrong direction,” Danforth said.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.