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TN Gov. Bill Haslam seen as presidential timber by some analysts

10:50 PM, Mar 4, 2013   |    comments
Governor Bill Haslam answers questions after a luncheon at Lipscomb University on Feb 6, 2013, in Nashville. / Dipti Vaidya / File / The Tennessean
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By Paul C. Barton / Tennessean Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - When Republicans look for reasons to be optimistic about future White House bids, they often focus on candidate possibilities offered by their stable of attention-getting governors.

Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, Nikki Haley of South Carolina, Chris Christie of New Jersey and Mitch Daniels of Indiana almost always get a mention.

Now, some political analysts say, it may be time to add Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam to the list.

The latest talk about Haslam paints him as mixing a mild-mannered style with achievements in areas long of vital interest to conservatives. Those include reforms related to teacher tenure, charter schools, tort law and the state's civil service system.

"He is someone who can point to significant accomplishments," said Josh Kraushaar, who tracks governors for the National Journal, a Washington-based public policy magazine. If he were to show interest in a White House bid, he "certainly would get attention," Kraushaar said.

Haslam's reputation as a "solutions-oriented conservative" is a key factor, Kraushaar said.

"He's getting some good press recently," added Jessica Taylor of the Rothenberg Political Report, a Washington-based newsletter.

"He's a conservative pragmatist."

Haslam's tendency to focus more on economic and education matters instead of controversial social issues bodes well for him, said David Avella, president of GOPAC, an organization devoted to electing Republicans at many levels.

"I think there is a segment of the Republican Party that will find that very attractive," Avella said.

A matter of style

But the mild-mannered style of the 54-year-old governor - up for re-election next year - could be both an asset and a problem should he try to become more of a figure on the national stage, other analysts say.

"He is a solid conservative yet has the sort of likeable persona and nonconfrontational approach that seem to be in short supply today," said Mark Byrnes, political scientist at Middle Tennessee State University.

"Being an 'establishment' Republican rather than a darling of the tea party might also make him appealing for a party that needs to figure out how to appeal to a broader swath of our diverse nation."

Similar pronouncements come from political observers nationwide.

Haslam "has a strong record of practical conservative governance," said John Pitney, an expert on Republican politics at Claremont McKenna College in California.

"Unlike, say, Newt Gingrich or Rick Santorum, he does not have a record of eccentric statements that could scare off moderate voters. Though he does not identify with the hard right, he would probably be acceptable to most party conservatives.

"On the other hand," Pitney said, "he has the BWG problem: Boring White Guy. If he's not offensive, he may not be particularly exciting, either."

When asked if he had any national aspirations, Haslam replied, "I can honestly say I have no intention of running for a different office."

He said he is quite happy to be a governor and will definitely run for re-election in 2014.

"Being a governor is about fixing problems. That's why I do this."

Another view

Some political analysts, such as David Kanervo of Austin Peay State University, said Haslam would be well-served by serving longer as a governor. Haslam "still has some time to go to prove himself," he said.

Regarding whether Tennessee is experiencing dramatic job growth, Kanervo added, "I am not sure he can show that yet."

Tennessee has added more than 190,000 jobs since Haslam took office, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and the unemployment rate has dipped from 10.5 percent to 7.6 percent in December 2012.

Republican political strategist Matt Mackowiak said Haslam must show he has fire in his belly before he can become credible on the national stage.

Because there will be no incumbent running for president in 2016, Mackowiak said, "the field will be both strong and deep, and absent a national profile or fundraising base, Gov. Haslam will be at a significant disadvantage should he choose to run.

"But his record as governor is worth studying and replicating in other states."

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