Bob Smith, who for 12 years served as New Hampshire's U.S. Senator, is betting that his brand of retro-Republicanism will carry him to victory in the 2010 race to be U.S. Senator from Florida. Smith retired in Sarasota six years ago and declared his candidacy this month. If elected, he would be the first in the august chamber's history to ever serve two different states. That's a big if.
For one thing, Smith is almost sure to face Gov. Charlie Crist, he of the soaring approval ratings, who gets closer to declaring his candidacy with each passing day. For another, Smith's got a name better-suited for the FBI Witness Protection Program, and when he left the G.O.P. six years ago, a few bridges collapsed behind him.
He caused a flap in 1999 when he abandoned campaigning for the Republican nomination for President so that he could campaign as a member of the U.S. Taxpayers party. Then as an independent. In 2002 Smith lost in New Hampshire's Republican primary to John Sununu, who had the support of President Bush, which may have led to the next dust-up, in 2004, when Smith authored a letter that was construed as an endorsement of Sen. John Kerry's presidential campaign -- a reading that Smith himself disputes.
I reached Smith this afternoon and asked him why, at the age of 68, and given the extraordinary odds against him, he would embark on a new Senate campaign in a new state. "The critical issue facing our party -- and the nation -- is leadership," says Smith. "And that's what I will provide."
More from my interview with Smith, plus video, after the jump.
The Republican brand, Smith believes, is reeling after a string of misjudgments that started at least as early as the 1993 confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg -- Smith was one of just three senators to cast votes against her. He maintains that the key to restoring electoral faith in the party is to resurrect the spirit of Ronald Reagan.
But then didn't every contender for the Republicans' 2008 presidential nomination make the same point?
And wasn't Reagan's ghost rockin' the Republican National Convention, only to watch a Democrat win in November? "There were a lot of factors in the last election, and I don't think (the G.O.P. defeat) had anything to do with Reagan," says Smith. "We may have discussed going back to the principles of Reagan, but we didn't do it. If we had, we would have won."
All Republicans, including Rush Limbaugh, seem to agree that the party's lost its way. They just differ on exactly when it took a wrong turn. For Smith, it's the Bush administration's record-shattering federal deficit, a Republican Congress that couldn't slow illegal immigration, that allowed the appointment of judges that "legislate from the bench" as opposed to a strict, literal adherence to the U.S. Constitution.
Now that it's fashionable to criticize the Republican Party, maybe an old-fashioned critic like Smith has a chance to win new support from its kingmakers. After all, isn't Crist being accused by party traditionalists as a traitor for having backed Obama's federal stimulus, and for a range of other moderate positions?
An experienced, battle-scarred politician like Smith isn't going to speculate on those matters. "This is not about me running against Gov. Crist," says Smith. "I'm going to talk about what's best for Florida." But in the next breath he stresses the vast differences between running the federal government and running the state, how he has "lots of experience in national defense" and how Crist really blundered his handling of Florida's insurance crisis. In a shot across the bow at all others Senate candidates, Smith says, "Some people will say, 'I will do that' or "I want to do that.' I can say, 'I've done it.'"
As for that alleged John Kerry endorsement in 2004, Smith says the letter he wrote was one of personal camaraderie, not political fealty. Kerry is a friend with whom Smith has in common his service in the Vietnam War, but nothing in common politicaly. "No one who knows Bob Smith," he says, "believes I would endorse the policies of John Kerry."
Here's Smith in his own words, from a series of youtube videos he posted earlier this year, when he was still exploring the idea of a Senate run.