When Jeb Bush is talking about education, he seems expert on that. When talking about agriculture in Iowa, he sounds like he's been reading ag journals. And when he talks foreign policy in a Q&A session, he impresses even skeptical press. If knowing the most about the most things determined the presidency, Jeb Bush would be the runaway favorite.
Recently he's begun to dispel critics' claims that he is insufficiently conservative. On the way to Iowa he rattled off his conservative accomplishments: "I cut taxes every year, totaling $19 billion in eight years. I reduced the state government's workforce by 13,000. I eliminated affirmative action as a policy in our admissions and procurement and replaced it with a system that did not discriminate but yielded better results for African-Americans and Hispanics. We created the first statewide voucher program in the United States. We had the greatest gains in learning of any state for a period of time and we're still one of the national leaders." His message: I've done a lot, and I know a lot. And I'm conservative.
Likewise, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry seems determined to dispel the impression he left in 2012 that he is uninformed or dim. As someone whose parents own a farm, he showed his depth on issues at last Saturday's Iowa agriculture summit, but he also impressed on foreign policy and immigration. With characteristic bluntness, he said about the Cuba deal: "We got a bad deal. This administration basically empowered the Castro regime with no thought of the Cuban people."
These two candidates, very different in appeal and demeanor, are making a bet of sorts, namely that the GOP electorate wants someone who has an impressive record of doing conservative things and can stand on a stage with Hillary Clinton and look more informed, more successful and more prepared to govern. In Bush's case, knowledge is key, in part because moderate Republicans, big donors, women voters and others attracted to his message don't want fiery rhetoric as much as they crave competence, solutions and concrete results. Perry's best bet rests with making the case that we should not put another freshman senator in the White House and then showing himself to be a more experienced executive with a broader and deeper worldview than Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker. Unlike 2012, his argument is: I know more and have done more than any of the other staunch conservatives; I'm the best bet to be the not-Bush.
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In another respect, these two candidates are betting that pandering is out of fashion. In Iowa, Bush explained he wants high standards (whatever their origin) in schools and the feds out while making his case that after securing the border we want a better immigration system, not fewer immigrants. And Perry is now able to boast about his role in securing the border but has not joined the anti-immigrant crowd nor has he copied Mike Huckabee's protectionist rants.
This does not mean that Bush or Perry will win, but it does suggest other candidates will need to match them in key respects. Can Scott Walker or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie convince voters their own records are more impressive, in part because their states are bluer? Can Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., show he is just as knowledgeable and prepared as Bush and Perry without the executive experience? Can Walker demonstrate his command of the issues and display his record of accomplishment in the race even after a recall effort?
It would be nice to think the contest would be decided on concrete results, preparation and character instead of who can toss the most red meat or who can slice and dice the other candidates. Maybe that is unrealistic. But at the very least those who do want to win cannot afford to be shown up by either Bush or Perry. They better show us what they know and what they've done — and do it without pandering that leaves them open to the charge they are run-of-the-mill slippery pols who will say anything to get elected. For that reason alone it's good to have Bush and Perry in the race.
Jennifer Rubin is a columnist for The Washington Post.
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