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Our Views: Fill the shoes
Candidates slips point out why US needs a seasoned president, not another novice
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Members of The Times editorial board include Publisher Dennis L. Stockton; General Manager Norman Baggs; Executive Editor Mitch Clarke; and Managing Editor Keith Albertson.

Hard to believe, but even as our 2011 election ends with a runoff a week from Tuesday, the 2012 presidential race is in full swing. The first contests in Iowa and New Hampshire are but weeks away, and Georgia's March 6 primary will be on us in no time.

The field is set on the Republican side, seven challengers vying to take on incumbent President Barack Obama in the fall. The key issues are many and the nation's challenges great. Yet the contest to date has focused more on candidates' ups-and-downs and recent gaffes than substantive issues.

First it was Rick Perry flubbing his lines at a couple of debates. Then Herman Cain lost his train of thought with too many things "twirling" in his head when asked about U.S. policy toward Libya at an editorial board meeting. Both looked like high school students who had crammed for an exam and were trying to remember a chemistry formula stuck up there somewhere.

Only these men are running for president, the highest office in the land, where it helps to know what you're talking about.

The news coverage of such all-too-human flubs may be over the top at times, and every candidate can have such moments. But they also reveal candidates who appear uninformed and seemingly unprepared for the job. And with it comes a lesson to all presidential hopefuls: If you want to sit in the big chair, you better know your stuff.

Cain was tired, his staff said. Perry is flummoxed by debates, said his people. Well, guess what: Presidents get tired and have a lot of things "twirling" in their heads, but they still need to step up and lead effectively when the heat is on. If they can't do it during a campaign, how will they handle a serious crisis once in office?

Both men dropped in the polls after their missteps. While that may seem harsh, it highlights the difficult gauntlet that is a presidential campaign, designed to separate real leaders from pretenders. It's the hardest job in the world, so the interview process for it should be equally tough. Lightweights need not apply.

And when someone goes down, someone else must come up, in this case former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He languished at the bottom of polls for most of the year, but now is surging toward the front along with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. That may be because Gingrich can cite policy ideas and discuss the world's hot spots at the drop of a hat without having to search his mind for the right answer. Whether you agree with him or not, he isn't in over his head as others seem to be.

Whoever wins the Republican scrum and the right to take on Obama, this much is clear: Americans need a competent, well-informed president, not someone who makes it up as they go along and will defer major decisions to generals and staff.

So far, fiscal policy has dominated the GOP debates, understandable considering the shape of the economy. Such was the case in 2008 and other recent campaigns when pocketbook issues took precedence. Cain, in particular, cites his business experience and tax reform plan as the way to grow the nation's economy.

Yet arguably the most important job a president undertakes is to manage U.S. foreign policy in a complex, dangerous and interconnected world. Economic and national security are linked to relations with other countries. We can no longer simply look inward and ignore what occurs outside our borders.

And it is the president who must look other world leaders in the eye one-on-one and state the nation's positions clearly and, at times, forcefully. Yet voters continue to send men into that job who have little or no foreign policy experience.

The U.S. can't afford to keep electing trainees to the White House. We did it by electing inexperienced governors in 1992 and 2000, and again with Obama, a first-term senator, in 2008. Each needed time to grow into the job. Yet many who decried Obama's lack of experience have embraced Sarah Palin and now back Cain, Perry or another neophyte. You can't have it both ways; ideology aside, either experience matters or it doesn't.

Perhaps voters' distaste for politics has led many to favor "nonpolitician" politicians who boast of being "outsiders." Yet those outsiders inevitably become insiders once elected, or are ground up by the Washington culture and are ineffective leaders.

Instead of electing another Johnny-come-lately novice, what the Oval Office needs is a better politician, one who may not change the system but can make it work. Our most revered presidents fit that role, from Abraham Lincoln to both Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin, and the icon of conservatism, Ronald Reagan. All were knowledgeable on the key issues and used their political savvy to win over opponents and enact their agendas. Americans should look for a president with such skills, not one who can't find countries on a map.

The country faces many challenges, internal and external, and can't afford to keep hiring leaders unable to meet them. Obama has disappointed on many levels, even among many who supported him. Yet if he is to be replaced, it needs to be with someone more capable and seasoned, not less so.

As we assess the strengths and weaknesses of the candidates on the ballot, let's not get so carried away with personalities, sound bites and imagery that we overlook the real substance needed in a commander in chief. The choice voters make next November is too important to do otherwise.

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