As the Republican presidential candidates prepare for the first debate that will include Fred Thompson -- a man for whom expectations are so low that CBS News says "even a marginally competent job in discussing the broad parameters of his economic policy" should result in good reviews -- the Washington Post is up with an assessment of the field from longtime Bush advisor Dan Bartlett.
The word: Mostly not good.
Bartlett, who has worked under both Karen Hughes and Karl Rove, says Thompson is the "biggest dud" in the pack, that his slow entry into the race and poor performance on the stump only serve to bolster concerns that he lacks the "fire in the belly" needed to be president. Bartlett says Mitt Romney has the "best strategy and organization" but that his "flip-flopping" on the issues will turn off voters looking for "authenticity," and the fact that he's a Mormon will be a problem in the South and elsewhere. Bartlett says John McCain may not have the money to win anywhere but New Hampshire.
So who does Bartlett like? Rudy Giuliani. For anyone perplexed as to why Giuliani has focused so much on Hillary Clinton during the Republican primary preseason, Bartlett has what he calls a "practical" explanation: The more Giuliani talks about Clinton -- a subject on which all Republicans seem to agree -- the less he has to engage with his own, more problematic views about, say, abortion or gay rights.
Bartlett's other favorite? Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. "He is the most articulate, visionary candidate of anybody in the field," Bartlett says. The catch? There are two of them: Huckabee comes from Hope, Ark., and he has a funny last name. "I hate to be so light about it, but it is, it's an issue," Bartlett says. "Politics can be fickle like that. I mean, you're trying to get somebody's attention for the first time ... 'Huckabee'? You've got to be kidding me! 'Hope, Arkansas'? Here we go again.'"