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Can Bad Campaigners Make Good Presidents?

John F. Kennedy once said there was no experience that could have adequately prepared him for the presidency.

That presumably included a hard-fought campaign for the job against sitting Vice President Richard Nixon — one of the closest-ever contests.

So, why should we assume that presiding over a well-oiled campaign has anything to do with running the White House?

Maybe we shouldn't, but that meme is gathering momentum among the pundit class on the heels of a lackluster and occasionally bewildering GOP nominating convention, followed by Mitt Romney's miscued remarks on Libya and the infamous hidden camera "47 percent" video:

James Fallows, writing for The Atlantic, called the Romney campaign's Libya debacle the candidate's "3 a.m. phone call" moment, a reference to a 2008 Hillary Clinton campaign ad that has become, as Fallows says, "shorthand for the unseen emergency. ... When faced with a 3 a.m. test, [Romney] reacted immediately rather than having the instinct to wait," he wrote.

Jill Lawrence, writing for National Journal, was even less kind in her assessment of the campaign missteps.

"It's hard to imagine a worse argument for competence than the Romney campaign's performance over the past few months," she wrote.

Even conservative columnist Peggy Noonan called the campaign "incompetent" and a "rolling calamity," though she stopped short of blaming the candidate himself.

The question of whether a bad campaign can still produce a good president is largely an academic one. After all, lousy campaigns don't tend to produce presidents of any sort, says George Edwards, a political science professor at Texas A&M University.

Still, a partial answer might be found by turning the question on its head: Do good campaigners make good presidents?

"Campaigns are relatively modest operations compared to the federal government," Edwards says.

"In a campaign, you're dealing on a daily basis only with people who want you to succeed, and you are appearing in front of people who mostly support you," he says. "Being president is not like that. Just ask Barack Obama."

John Geer, a professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University, thinks the pundits are reading too much into the recent Romney fumbles.

"I am not yet convinced that we should call Romney a bad campaigner," he says. "The '47 percent' thing — that was just bad luck. That's not really a mistake."

Even so, Geer thinks presiding over a complex and multifaceted national campaign is like simulator training for the Oval Office.

"There's a belief among many that campaigning is different from governing," he says. "I'm not sure that's true. A campaign is a huge undertaking, and if you can run that, you can run the White House."

That's why Geer bucks much of the current thinking that the campaign season is too long. On the contrary, he says, long campaigns are good for the country.

"Presidential campaigns are hard and they are grueling, just like the presidency," he says. "A long campaign gives us a glimpse of how the candidate acts on the good days as well as the bad ones."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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