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Feb 16, 2015 3:26 AM

Bumpy learning curve for likely candidates in 2016 race

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) If you're an aspiring presidential candidate, says professional crisis manager Eric Dezenhall, right now is "a great time to take a pratfall because it's so far away from anything major."

That's a good thing because so many of the candidates' feet have been sliding out from under them.

The first six weeks of 2015 have featured mangled messages, snappishness, a bad hire and other flubs from the Republicans who would be president.

It's pretty much to be expected in the earliest stages of a campaign with just short of a gazillion potential candidates who haven't done this before.

In recent days:

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush cut loose a new hire with a history of inappropriate comments about women, gays and blacks.

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul struggled to strike the right tone on whether parents should have to vaccinate their children.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker caught flak for ducking questions and picking a fight with the revered University of Wisconsin.

Candidates-in-waiting got peevish. They gave underwhelming speeches. They tried to disavow their own words. And so on.

Do these responses sound like guys who are ready to be president?

Do you believe in evolution, Gov. Walker? "I'm going to punt on that one."

What about the Islamic State group, Gov. Christie? "Is there something you don't understand about, 'No questions?'"

It's part of the long and brutal learning curve for a presidential race, where even seasoned politicians find the scrutiny more intense than for lesser offices.

Dezenhall calls this the season of "gaffe congestion" for would-be candidates and says 20 months out from Election Day 2016 is a good time to get them over with.

In an earlier time, even eight years ago or 12, none of this recent drama would have been much more than a paragraph in the saga that is a presidential race.

"Now, thanks to Twitter and the immediacy of political commentary, mistakes are much more painful," says Ari Fleischer, a communications consultant who was President George W. Bush's press secretary.

Still, he says, the best candidates will learn from their early stumbles and quickly regain their stride.

Jeb Bush's team probably will check out future job applicants more carefully. A less bombastic Christie was back working in Iowa not long after snapping at reporters in London. Walker turned to Twitter to at least explain, somewhat, his thinking on evolution after his refusal to answer a question on the subject during his own trip to London became a distraction.

"Much of what's happening right now won't be remembered a year from now or in a general election," says Stephanie Cutter, a veteran of Democratic presidential campaigns for Barack Obama and John Kerry. She said part of the problem may be that potential candidates don't yet have a full complement of campaign staff.

But she also said that some of the recent commotion, such as the vaccine flap, could signal a dynamic that will carry forward in the race as GOP candidates try to cater to primary voters without tacking so far to the right that it causes them trouble in the general election.

It's also clear that even if regular voters aren't tuned in yet, the potential candidates are being sized up by donors, activists and potential staff who will be crucial to helping them run an effective campaign.

Mo Elleithee, communications director for the Democratic National Committee, predicts that some of the recent GOP missteps could turn out to be particularly telling for voters in the long run.

Christie and Paul, with their bluster and argumentative interaction with the press, are "letting people see who they really are," he said.

For now, Democrats can largely sit back and enjoy the GOP clatter because expected candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton has the experience of the 2008 Democratic primaries on her resume and is expected to face little primary opposition this time.

But Fleischer said even Clinton will have an adjustment to make if she jumps back into the presidential mosh pit after eight years of "the paid speaker's life, which is scrutiny-free, and the charmed life of a secretary of state, where you're not covered in the same way you are in political campaigns."

Dezenhall said one skill that candidates on both sides will need to learn early on is damage control both how to respond and what safely can be ignored because errors are inevitable.

"Politics used to be about where you stood," he said. "Now, it's about what you stepped in."


Follow Nancy Benac on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/nbenac


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