- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 14, 2011

Just as Republican leaders on Capitol Hill are splintered on strategy over the debt limit, so is the party’s presidential field, with the tea-party wing saying an increase should be rejected and the more moderate elements taking a wait-and-see approach.

U.S. Reps. Ron Paul of Texas and Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and Atlanta businessman Herman Cain are calling on Congress to scrap any deal to raise the nation’s borrowing power beyond the current $14.3 trillion cap.

Several former governors in the field, however, including Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and Jon Huntsman Jr. of Utah, are taking a more cautious course, offering general guidance about how they view the debate but letting the negotiations play out between congressional leaders and President Obama.

“They are playing exactly to type,” said Mark J. Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University. “I don’t see where Bachmann, Cain and Paul have any room to offer flexibility on the debt limit at all, given their ideologies and constituencies that they’re cultivating - which are on the political right of the GOP.

Whereas Romney and Huntsman are both trying to reach out to the conservative wing of the party, but at the same time, each wants to be seen as having the responsible-leader-type personality and being more politically centrist than much of the rest of the field,” he concluded.

Then there is former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who holds up the role he played in a 2005 state government shutdown as a symbol of his commitment to fiscal caution.

Mr. Pawlenty has said he doesn’t believe the debt limit needs to be increased because the federal government has enough revenue to continue to make payments on the debt, and that could buy time for Congress to tackle the biggest drivers of national spending: Social Security, Medicare and other entitlements and the military.

Complicating matters is the fact that Mr. Obama, who is up for re-election next year, is involved with the high-level negotiations but none of his potential opponents is. That has freed them to take differing stands - and in the case of the House members, to flex legislative muscle because they eventually will get a vote on any final deal.

The Paul campaign rolled out a new television ad Thursday touting his “conviction” and posing the question of whether Republican leaders will “repeat the mistakes of the past.”

“Will they choose compromise or conviction?” the narrator asks. “One candidate has always been true: Ron Paul - cut spending, balance the budget, no deals. Standing up to the Washington machine, guided by principle.”

The ire even has been turned on Republicans’ own negotiators.

This week, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, warned that the party would be blamed if the government defaults on its debt and offered a complex proposal that would free Mr. Obama to raise the nation’s debt limit while enabling Republicans to dodge much of the political blame.

In a news conference Wednesday, Mrs. Bachmann said his plan was little more than “smoke and mirrors.”

“I am ‘No’ on raising the debt ceiling right now because I’ve been here long enough that I’ve seen a lot of smoke and mirrors in the time that I’ve been here,” she said, while also arguing that there’s plenty of time and money left in federal coffers to make payments on the debt.

Mark Meckler, co-founder of the Tea Party Patriots, agreed with Mrs. Bachmann that anything other than a refusal to increase the nation’s borrowing capacity would be “smoke and mirrors.”

“No matter what we raise it to, they are going to spend the entire thing, and the only way you are going to stop them from spending is if you take away the credit card,” he said.

Ron Bonjean, a political strategist, countered that a measured response to the ongoing talks is a good idea when dealing with such a high-stakes issues.

“It’s important to lay out principles and what you stand for, but not to get caught up in the quicksand of specifics. It’s a good long-term strategy to have,” he said.

That’s the approach of Mr. Romney, who said during a campaign swing through New Hampshire on Thursday that a debt-limit increase should be tied to spending cuts, a federal spending cap and a balanced-budget amendment.

Pressed for more details on the possible cuts or a cap, Andrea Saul, Mr. Romney’s spokeswoman, said, “Mitt is not going to weigh in on the ongoing changes of the negotiations, but his stance is clear.”

Mrs. Saul said her boss will take a position on a deal if one is reached.

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