As the sixth Republican presidential debate generated sparks between former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, the snarkiest GOP in-fighting came this week on a much different stage, as former top White House aide Dan Bartlett let loose, offering harsh critiques of those seeking to succeed his former boss and patron, President George W. Bush.
"The biggest dud, Fred Thompson," Bartlett said in a speech to the Chamber of Commerce posted on the Web site of the speakers' bureau, Leading Authorities. "I think he peaked last spring when he said he was thinking about running."
From 1993 until earlier this year Bartlett toiled at Bush's side and held his tongue. No longer.
Having previously said he was leaving the White House to spend more time with his young children, Bartlett offered a more candid assessment of the reasons for his exit.
"President Bush has a 34 percent approval rating," he said. "Our party's been rocked by another sexual scandal. Americans believe, about 69 percent of them believe that we're on the wrong track. We've got this housing market cratering on us, it's threatening the entire economy. So I had a choice to make. Do I stick by my old man, President Bush and weather out the storm, or do I join the private sector and re-acquaint myself with my family, maybe give a speech or two?"
The former White House aide, who earlier this year called his decision to leave the president a "struggle," admitted to the crowd that "I thought that was a pretty easy decision."
In the speech he imitated -- with fondness -- the president and Vice President Cheney and offers no-holds-barred punditry.
"I think the Mormon issue is a real problem in the South, it's a real problem in other parts of the country, but people are not going to say it," he said of Romney. "People are not going to step out and say, 'I have a problem with Romney because he's Mormon.' What they're going to say is he is a flip flopper."
Bartlett also said Romney has "the best strategy and organization."
Romney campaign spokesman Kevin Madden responded to Bartlett's comments, saying, "There will always be a variety of analyses offered about the campaign and the candidates. That's to be expected. But, I believe voters are going to decide to support Governor Romney based on his leadership skills and the ideas and policies he is putting forward on big issues. His faith is something that voters may be interested in as part of a complete review of exactly who Mitt Romney is, but once they see that he is someone who shares common values with Americans who has the very same hopes and aspirations for the country that they do, their decision to support him will be largely be driven by those factors instead."
Bartlett's assments weren't all negative of course.
"Best message: Rudy," Bartlett said. "He has been able to keep the focus on the Democrats." Bartlett said "there is a very practical aspect" for this Giuliani tactic in that it allows the former Mayor to avoid discussing social issues on which he has a more liberal history.
Of former Bush nemesis Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., Bartlett said a narrative was developing in the media that he may be "somebody that is too much trying to position himself, trying to hedge himself" and is "almost too mechanical about the issues. Authenticity is going to be very important principle in this campaign, and right now it's their biggest danger."
In general, Bartlett said he saw McCain as in a better place today than earlier in this campaign.
"The boom and bust cycle of his campaign has been well documented, but he is now where he does his best -- he's lean, he's mean, he's out there and is fighting in New Hampshire. The problem is going to be and it always comes down is money, money, money, and he doesn't have it. The irony can be is he could see this play out the exact same way in 2000. He can win in New Hampshire and not have any money or infrastructure to maximize it in a national campaign."
And while Bartlett called former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee visionary and articulate, he also said Huckabee's name and the fat that he's from the same town as Bill Clinton would be issues.
"Politics can be fickle like that. I mean, you're trying to get peoples attention for the first time -- they're turned off: 'President Huckabee? You got to be kidding. Hope, Arkansas? Here we go again,'" Bartlett joked.
Bartlett said he thought this would be the season of the "pragmatic Republican voter," which he said bodes well for Giuliani and gives McCain a shot.