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Review: 'Double Down' recounts 2012 campaign, looks ahead to 2016

Double Down is the widely anticipated sequel to the engrossing Game Change, the account by authors Mark Halperin and John Heilemann of the dramatic and often comedic 2008 presidential campaign. But reading the new book often feels like sitting through the lesser offering on a twin bill or the B-side of a hit record.

Interesting? Yes. At times enlightening? Absolutely. Entertaining? To be sure, but much like Barack Obama's assessment of Bill Clinton: in doses. In the end, though, Double Down's dissection of the 2012 presidential race will still be appealing to those political junkies to whom any small rivulet of gossip or kernel of insider intrigue is irresistible.

That Double Down falls a bit short of the high political theater offered up by Game Change is hardly the fault of Halperin and Heilemann, two first-rate hustings reporters. They can only go so far with the material provided them.

Game Change presented a rich bipartisan tableau of characters, all vying to succeed George W. Bush. On the Democratic side of the ballot there was the knock-down, drag-out primary battle between two incumbent senators, Illinois' brash up-and-coming Barack Obama, holding out the promise of becoming the nation's first black president, against New York's Hillary Clinton, who despite her looming national profile ran an inept campaign, as if the nomination was hers to claim as a matter of manifest destiny.

Readers were also taken into the dysfunctional relationship of former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards and his terminally ill wife, Elizabeth.

On the Republican end, Game Change tracked the heated primary fight among Sen. John McCain, Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani, who were all united around at least one common core value — they all thought Mitt Romney was an insufferable dolt.

And then, of course, there was the grand entrance of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as McCain's eventual flummoxed running mate, whose vetting for the ticket was less thorough than the average perusing of the tomato bin at Publix. Great memories, great memories.

Double Down doesn't quite rise to the court jester level of Game Change, although Texas Gov. Rick Perry does his best.

Also, as long as the GOP's resident dancing monkey, Donald Trump, the Great Pumpkin of the Republican Party, can draw a breath, he will always be a dark, absurdist presence every four years.

Since there was never any doubt as to who the Democratic nominee would be with Obama seeking a second term, the book is somewhat handicapped by losing 50 percent of its potential dramatic fodder. In fairness, it should be noted the 44th president's bizarre decision to sleep though his first debate with Romney in Denver did spice things up for a few days.

While any primary campaign is fraught with minicontroversies and setbacks, there was never any real doubt Romney would eventually emerge as the GOP presidential standard bearer.

Ultimately the fascination in Double Down stems from the insider accounts of a nominee known for his cold-blooded, analytical mind, who still amazingly never seemed to miss an opportunity to step on his portfolio.

From his ham-handed offer to Perry to bet $10,000 to settle a disagreement over health care policy, to his disastrous overseas trip during which he managed to offend half of Europe, to his tone-deaf comments about making $350,000 in speaking fees as "not very much," to his dismissal of 47 percent of the electorate as a bunch of freeloaders, Double Down depicts Romney as an oblivious one-man, self-made negative campaign ad.

And we haven't even gotten to Clint Eastwood's unhinged, rambling debate with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention in Tampa. Brilliant!

Either by design or coincidence, one can approach Double Down less as a narrative about the 2012 campaign and more as a tempting taste of what to expect come 2016, when once again the race for the presidency will be wide open.

On that score, anyone who has concluded New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie represents the savior of a rightward tilting, tea party-dominated GOP might very well do some rethinking.

If there is a heavy — in more ways than one — to be found within the pages of Double Down, it is Christie, dubbed "Big Boy" by the Romney camp. Double Down reveals him as a mercurial, demanding prima donna who arrogantly insists Romney refrain from raising money in New Jersey until he grants his endorsement. And while the candidate himself favored Christie as his running mate, "Big Boy" badly failed the vetting process, refusing to provide certain documents related to his health and finances.

Long before Christie found himself embroiled in the George Washington Bridge scandal, if he couldn't pass muster to join the Romney ticket, how well is he likely to fare under the glaring media and opposition scrutiny should the governor become a presidential candidate himself?

And that might suggest a title for Halperin's and Heilemann's account of the 2016 campaign: Big Boy's Bridge to Nowhere.

Daniel Ruth can be reached at druth@tampabay.com.

Double Down: Game Change 2012

By Mark Halperin and John Heilemann

Penguin, 512 pages, $29.95

Review: 'Double Down' recounts 2012 campaign, looks ahead to 2016 01/28/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 28, 2014 3:09pm]

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