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What To Look For In The Third GOP Debate

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

On this day of a Republican presidential debate, let's hear from a guy who's seen it before. Stu Stevens was a strategist for Mitt Romney in the very crowded presidential primary of 2012. And before that, he worked for George W. Bush. Stevens is also an author, most recently of a story of spending time with his 95-year-old father in Mississippi. Maybe it's that sense of time, of long perspective that prompts Stevens to ignore almost every thing he is seeing just this minute in the presidential horse race polls.

STU STEVENS: My theory of the race, which is unburdened by evidence, but I still hold to it, is that the Republicans are not going to nominate anyone who has not held office before. So that takes out Trump. That takes out Carson. That takes out Fiorina. I just don't think the party will. They never have. It would be highly unusual for it to happen. One of the realities here that I don't think people are focused on enough is the timing of this. You know how it was for the last two cycles. The Iowa caucus was right after January 1.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

STEVENS: So, you know, you had the focus on this to a degree. You focused on it over Christmas, which no one wanted to do. Now, we have this natural period until the Iowa caucus. And I think that's really when this race is going to start for real.

INSKEEP: So you're saying Carson, not real, Trump, not real, not going anywhere.

STEVENS: I think Trump is a ridiculous presidential candidate. I think Carson is a serious person who has serious intent who, I think, has played a useful role in this dialogue. But I don't think he'll be the nominee.

INSKEEP: And Carly Fiorina also out, as far as you're concerned?

STEVENS: The same - another serious person who clearly has come to this race very prepared.

INSKEEP: Mitt Romney, the candidate that you managed in 2012, had a situation something like Jeb Bush or some of the other mainstream candidates in 2016 - in the 2016 cycle - in that there was a moment where Herman Cain was huge, and there was moment when Rick Santorum was huge and Newt Gingrich was huge, and you had to get past that. How did you do that, and how would a candidate do that this time around?

STEVENS: I think patience is one of the great, undervalued qualities in politics in general, but particularly in a presidential candidate race. You can't make voters come to decisions that they're not ready to come to. So I think that the key here is to articulate a reason, with passion, why you want to be president and should be president. With Mitt Romney, it was pretty clear it was going to be about the economy. And if you're going to beat Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential primary, you had to beat him on the economy. And, you know, someone could have, but they didn't.

INSKEEP: I am remembering, though, that Mitt Romney also, in that primary campaign in the 2012 cycle, took a very strong stance against illegal immigration and talked about encouraging people to self-deport, which was seen as very damaging in the general election. Do you see Republicans taking positions now that are going to damage them later?

STEVENS: Well, first, on that, you know, self-deport - if you go back and you look at that, it was a phrase that was used once. I think it's an awkward phrase, but he's talking about people who decide to leave rather than being deported. In the summer of 2011, the generic Republican candidate was getting 26 percent of Hispanic vote. Mitt Romney ended up with close to that. I don't think that the primary damaged Republicans with Hispanics. There's no data to indicate that. But it didn't help.

INSKEEP: Now, I want to play us something here. There was a meeting in Boulder, where the debate will take place tonight - a meeting of Hispanic conservatives, including Rosario Marin, who was the United States treasurer under President George W. Bush, who said this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROSARIO MARIN: Heed our warning. Don't expect us to come to your side during the general election. You are not with us now. We will not be with you then.

INSKEEP: Rosario Marin there is essentially saying, don't say one thing in the primary and expect to say something else in the general election. You're shutting off options here.

STEVENS: I think it's a very good point. Listen, the great challenge of the Republican Party is expanding beyond non-white voters. It's pretty straightforward. I don't think there's an easy path there, but I think it's like anything in life. The first thing to do is to acknowledge that you need to and then go about, even if it's awkward, ways to do it.

INSKEEP: Stuart Stevens was an advisor to Mitt Romney in the 2012 election campaign. He is the author of several books, as well, including "The Last Season: A Father, A Son, And A Lifetime Of College Football." Thanks very much.

STEVENS: Thank you, Steve. It was great to be here. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 28, 2015 at 12:00 AM EDT
In his Morning Editionconversation with host Steve Inskeep, campaign strategist Stuart Stevens said the Republican Party had never nominated for president anyone who had not held public office. That left out Dwight D. Eisenhower, who had been supreme Allied commander in Europe during World War II and then supreme commander of NATO, before winning the nomination in 1952.