Dan Bartlett used to speak for President Bush, one of his most trusted and ubiquitous aides for 14 years.

Now, Bartlett is speaking for himself, and handicapping the Republican presidential field with uncommon candor and surprising conclusions.

His vote for all-around “best candidate?” Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor considered a long-shot to break into the top tier in the crowded race.

“Biggest dud?” Fred Thompson, the actor-politician who raised hopes he could be the GOP’s next Ronald Reagan until his campaign began stumbling.

As for the front-runner, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Bartlett gives him points for “best message” but otherwise said little. He complimented Giuliani for turning attention away from his more liberal positions on guns, gays, abortion and other social issues that could offend Republican primary voters.

“I can’t believe that more Republicans during this primary process have not focused more on contrasting themselves, not with each other but with the Democrats,” Bartlett said Sept. 13 at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “Rudy has done that the best.”

Bartlett’s speech was his first since his July departure from the White House, where he held the title of counselor after working for Bush since 1993. It was a joint appearance with Terry McAuliffe, the former Democratic Party boss who is chairman of Democratic Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s campaign.

Among Bartlett’s topics advertised by the Leading Authorities Speakers Bureau, which books him for $10,000-$30,000 per speech, is “a hard look at the upcoming presidential elections.”

Bartlett remains in touch with former White House colleagues. But he said Tuesday that “the speech reflects my views and in no way, shape, or form channels the thinking of the president.”

In the speech, he had some praise for each of the main Republican candidates, but more criticism.

Mitt Romney, for example, won kudos for “best strategy and organization.” But Bartlett went on to skewer the former Massachusetts governor for letting the story line harden that he flip-flops on issues.

“When you see a narrative develop, you better make sure it’s one you like. Because if it’s not, they are very difficult to change,” Bartlett said. “He’s getting a narrative in the national media as someone who is too much trying to position himself, trying to hedge himself, almost too mechanical about the issues. Right now, that’s their biggest danger,” Bartlett said Tuesday.

But not the only one, according to Bartlett.

Romney’s Mormon faith “is a real problem in the South, it’s a problem in other parts of the country.” Bartlett said voters won’t admit that’s why they won’t support him, so “what they’re going to say is, `He’s a flip-flopper.'”

Bartlett called Arizona Sen. John McCain the “biggest wild card.”

“The boom-and-bust cycle of his campaign has been well-documented,” he said. “But he is now where he does his best: He’s lean, he’s mean, he’s out there, he’s fighting in New Hampshire. The problem is going to be that it always comes down to money, money, money and he doesn’t have it.”

Huckabee won Bartlett’s greatest enthusiasm for being “the most articulate, visionary candidate of anybody in the field” and the one who most reminds him of the president. But Bartlett said Huckabee will likely fall short, in part because his last name sounds funny and he’s from Bill Clinton’s hometown.

“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,'” Bartlett said.

He was harshest about Thompson and his late-but-criticized entry into the race.

“The biggest liability was whether he had the fire in the belly to run for office in the first place and be president,” Bartlett said. “So what does he do? He waits four months, fires a bunch of staff, has a big staff turnover, has a lot of backbiting, comes out with this big campaign launch and gives a very incoherent and not very concise stump speech for why he’s running for president.”

Bartlett said Thompson peaked in the spring before he became an official candidate and has little chance now to become the nominee.

But when it came to predicting who does, Bartlett demurred. He didn’t rule out Romney, but seemed to lean toward either Giuliani or McCain.

“Republicans, I believe, are terrified about losing the presidency after losing Congress,” he said. “I think this is going to be the season of the pragmatic Republican voter. That bodes well for Rudy and it gives McCain a shot. McCain could go toe-to-toe with Hillary in the general election.”


On the Web

Bartlett bio on Leading Authorities site: http://www.leadingauthorities.com/24384/Dan_Bartlett.htm