It was a "two senator day" for the Politics Column on Tuesday as Republican John Thune of South Dakota and our own Democrat Chuck Schumer wound their way through Buffalo. Schumer ranks third in the Democratic Senate, and Thune is mentioned prominently for the same post on the GOP side come next year.
And as you might expect, their takes on President Obama differ substantially. But these two savvy pols also share similar views on the dynamics that will guide the election of 2012.
Thune, who considered a presidential bid until earlier this year, uses bold terms like "lack of leadership" and "lack of confidence" to describe the current Oval Office. But the harshest word -- the one that grabs you when you hear it -- is "incompetent."
"The public perceives there's a competence problem," Thune said after a fundraiser for County Executive Chris Collins in the Buffalo and Erie County Historical Society.
"Part of that is we have a president right now who is indecisive," he added. "People want a leader that makes decisions. This sort of mantra of leading from behind has really attached itself to the president."
That's a devastating description for the leader of the free world. And as Thune assesses potential Republican opponents, he thinks the party offers real alternatives.
"People are looking for a candidate who will be decisive and provide the kind of leadership that people think is really lacking in Washington today," he said.
But another key word in the senator's political lexicon is "electable." The presidential contenders have the conservative credentials to represent the GOP, he says, but must offer voters the special intangibles that make them presidential.
"Somebody who comes across in a way that attracts people rather than drives them away," he said. "Not only does substance matter, but style and tone matters. Electability is going to be a big factor."
Thune avoids naming names, but he is probably thinking about the same candidates you are when he points to those he feels can't be elected.
Yes, the senator says in the fall of 2011, Obama is hurting from a reeling economy and the resulting soft numbers. But any optimism at this point should be tempered.
"Once they start kicking the money machine in and the races are going to start tightening around the country," he said. "I think it's going to be a very competitive national election."
Enter Schumer, who knows a thing or two about elections himself. Indeed, he has never lost one. He says Obama's difficulties stem from tea party Republicans in the House who have made "everything polarized."
"They hate the government so much they don't care if they mess everything up," he said, referring to the debt ceiling crisis and other issues, too. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, he points out, listed the president's defeat in 2012 as his number one goal.
Schumer also senses that Republicans smell blood in the water, and are working to accomplish McConnell's goal. But he is not sure the Republican field will heed Thune's advice on electability.
"The people who are ideologues are not a majority, but they are running the show right now," he said. "These are hard times, but one thing I can say is that I have faith in this country. When the public gets a sniff that either side is too ideological, it changes."
Schumer knows enough about politics to realize it will be tough sledding for the president next year. But he, too, recognizes the "electability" factor.
All that could work in the Democrats' favor, he said, along with the president's own skills.
"The people are on his side," he said, "but I think he's got to mobilize them."