Former Minnesota congressman Vin Weber, another former Romney campaign adviser, who has known Bolton for three decades, is skeptical. “John is an extraordinary person, and he could be a prominent spokesman for the internationalist point of view on the Republican side, but it’s doubtful he can get to critical mass as a national candidate,” Weber says. “Can you develop a grassroots following around American international leadership with a hawkish edge? Maybe, but that’s not where a lot of the public opinion is right now on those issues, and it’s not often that national security and foreign policy dominates a Republican-primary debate.”
John Weaver, a GOP operative who advised former Utah governor Jon Huntsman during last year’s primary, and tried to use his candidate’s foreign-policy cred to elevate him, is similarly pessimistic. “We now live in a time where there’s not a lot of focus on foreign policy, except for lurching from crisis to crisis,” he says. “It was even hard for John McCain, when I was working for him back in 2000, to get attention for his foreign-policy positions until he won the New Hampshire primary. We’d have him give a big speech on foreign policy and it’d promptly be ignored. Let’s face it: Campaigns are now all about process, the horse race, and polling, and you can try to do something different, but it probably won’t work.”
Steve Grubbs, who advised Herman Cain’s 2012 primary campaign in Iowa, working on turning a small campaign into a larger movement, says Bolton doesn’t recognize the challenges of going to Iowa these days, where such politicians as Paul and Senator Ted Cruz of Texas are giving speeches and building shadow campaigns at a much larger level than making calls to old Bush hands and slowly forming PACs. “In Iowa, you’ve got to be warm and fuzzy to make the relationships work,” he says. “He’s going to need to find some champions here to work for him and really touch the voters. If he ends up going on a lecture tour, it’d be interesting, but not much more. He’d need a lot of national media to lift him.”
Not everyone, though, is pouring cold water on Bolton’s aspirations. Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican party, got to know Bolton a few years ago when Bolton, soon after he left the Bush administration, came up to the Granite State to give a speech to the state GOP. The pair clicked, and they have since kept in touch. When Bolton called Cullen this summer about his White House dreams, Cullen invited him to visit. Late next month, Bolton will make the trip, attending a house party at Cullen’s home in Dover, N.H., as well as a fundraiser in Keene and a handful of smaller events.
Cullen tells me that, with an open Republican presidential primary on the horizon, any candidate with strong name-identification and enthusiasm has an outside shot at winning the first-in-the-nation primary. He also believes that the growing divide in the party between the conservatives weary of foreign conflicts and U.S. intervention, such as Paul, and the conservatives like Bolton who advocate a more muscular approach will only widen, potentially giving someone like Bolton room to rise.
“Look, I don’t have a close personal relationship with him, but I like how he’s coming at this from a policy angle, making it about intellectual arguments regarding the future of the country and the party,” Cullen says. “We need more of his type in the party, a counter to the neo-isolationist view that seems to be more and more of a force. He’ll get a hearing.”
Bill Kristol, the editor of The Weekly Standard and one of Bolton’s confidants, isn’t ready to write him off, either. “The more thoughtful and intelligent candidates the better,” he says. “Run, John, run!”
— Robert Costa is National Review’s Washington editor.