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Each candidate resonates with a part of the party. But can one get enough support to win in the primary and in November?
By WES ALLISON, Times Staff Writer
Published January 13, 2008
WASHINGTON - In 2000, Republican voters had two basic choices to lead their party into the next election: a Christian conservative and political blue-blood, or a salty maverick whose independent streak made him unpopular with conservatives, despite his conservative voting record.
The contest didn't last long. After a surprising win for Arizona Sen. John McCain in New Hampshire, George W. Bush harnessed social conservatives and the party establishment to crush him in South Carolina. Other Republicans quickly fell into line.
But 2008 looks vastly different. At least four Republicans with four distinct ideologies are viable candidates now and are likely to remain so for some weeks to come. Each hopes to fill the vacuum in party leadership created by Bush's low standing in the polls and the lack of a clear successor to inherit the party establishment.
"Is there a Republican establishment any more?" said Scott Reed, a veteran Republican operative in Washington who ran Sen. Bob Dole's presidential campaign in 1996.
"Is it the congressional leadership? Is it the Republican governors? Is it the Republican National Committee? Not really. It's going to be the next nominee."
In addition to determining who will battle the Democratic candidate for the White House in November, the selection of the nominee will do nothing less than decide the Republican Party's identity for the coming year, and beyond if he wins in November.
Each leg of the Republican stool - social conservatives, fiscal conservatives, and defense-minded conservatives - fear their party has veered off-track in recent years, culminating in the Republicans' loss of Congress in 2006.
Each faction is looking for a presidential candidate who can address its concerns, but none of the candidates is making everyone happy.
McCain, a Vietnam veteran and leader in the Senate on military affairs, and Rudy Giuliani, who has prominent neoconservatives serving on his foreign policy advisory team, both appeal to defense-oriented Republicans.
But social conservatives fear Giuliani, who supports abortion and gay rights, and they distrust McCain, who has backed campaign finance reform, funding for embryonic stem cell research and caps on carbon emissions.
"There's a certain enjoyment McCain gets from sticking his thumbs in conservatives' eyes," said Nachama Soloveichik, communications director for the conservative Club for Growth.
Social conservatives love Huckabee, who won the Iowa caucus with their help, but his populist streak worries the party's formidable probusiness elements. His support of new taxes as governor of Arkansas has drawn bitter opposition from the antitax wing; a Club for Growth subsidiary already has spent nearly $800,000 attacking him in TV ads.
Rush Limbaugh, as potent a conservative voice as any, has hammered at both McCain and Huckabee. Limbaugh fears Huckabee's social conservative appeal is masking his record of sympathy for higher taxes and support for illegal immigrants.
"Like the pastor who just called and said Huckabee is a light at the end of the tunnel," Limbaugh said on his radio show recently. "Pastor, the light at the end of the tunnel is the oncoming train, and you can't get off the track!"
Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a multimillionaire capitalist and turn-around artist, was supposed to appeal to the business wing, but his second-place finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire have tempered enthusiasm. Evangelicals also are skeptical of Romney, a Mormon who used to support abortion rights.
Giuliani leads most national polls, but his liberal tendencies on social issues make many Republicans doubtful he can win the nomination of a party sworn to eradicate abortion, even if he wins in Florida on Jan. 29.
Many Republican leaders, including Rep. Adam Putnam of Bartow, the third-ranking Republican in the U.S. House, had thought former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson was the man to unite the party's factions and carry it to victory.
"He's conservative on the fiscal stuff and security, he obviously will do well in the South, he's a social conservative, he'd appeal to the old Reagan Democrats in the Rust Belt - all of those things are why I backed him," Putnam said.
"I felt he was the only guy who could come out of the primary and be a strong general election candidate. Everybody thought Giuliani would be the strongest in the general election, but I had concerns he couldn't get out of the primary."
But Thompson has foundered badly, in part because he has been equivocal in his hunger for the job. He seems on the verge of collapse, unless he can somehow win South Carolina on Saturday.
The result is that the Democrats get to spend the primary season debating which leading candidate - New York Sen. Hillary Clinton, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, or former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina - is best able to achieve their policy goals in Washington, and who's most likely to win the general election in November. There isn't vast ideological difference among them.
The primary contest for the Republicans, by contrast, is more philosophical and visceral.
"At the end of the day, these are still ideological elections. Electability comes in later," Reed said. "If it was any way different, Giuliani would be winning all these early conservative states."
Republicans say their choice for the nominee likely will affect their attempt to retake the House and the Senate in 2006.
"If Giuliani is the nominee, then suburban Republicans in Pennsylvania, New York and Conneticut will be happy. Candidates in the South have to be concerned," Putnam said.
"If Huckabee's the nominee, then that coin flips, and Northeastern congressional candidates will probably be concerned that he's reinforcing a stereotype of the party that's is not popular in the Northeast or the West Coast."
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A side-effect of losing is often finger-pointing, and the Republicans have engaged in plenty of it since they lost Congress to the Democrats in 2006. Each faction is looking for the next nominee to set things right.
Fiscal conservatives insist the Republicans lost Congress because they increased government spending, pushing the deficit up and bringing the federal debt to about $9-trillion.
"We got more worried about the next election than the next generation, and it all ended in '06," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who supports McCain. "The reason our party is in retreat is because we lost our way on core issues like spending."
Security conservatives worry the nation's military has been overtaxed in Iraq, and they want more attention to defense.
Social conservatives complain the Republicans failed to deliver on a host of cultural concerns, such as thwarting abortion, banning gay marriage and providing more school choice.
"They're tired of Republicans giving them lip service," said Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council. "And it's going to be hard for a candidate to secure that evangelical vote unless they really drive home their commitment."
At some point, given the differences among the candidates, some element of the Republican coalition must lose, or simply give in. But how it breaks - toward who's the most electable, or who's the social conservative, or who's the strongest on national defense - remains anyone's guess.
McCain, in particular, has been preaching the need for bipartisan cooperation, an appeal to independents and others frustrated with Washington gridlock. But to the true believers who dominate the party primaries, that can also sound like capitulation.
The stock answer among many Republican operatives and politicians is that the party will rally behind the nominee regardless of who he is - especially if the Democrats pick Clinton. But that's not a guarantee. Putnam and others say they worry a bit.
"I don't think I can make an accurate generalization of how the party will react to the eventual nominee, because frankly the process of getting a nominee is that catharsis," Putnam said.
"The question is, how willing are Republican primary voters to allow electability to trump ideology? I don't think our folks are so willing to push ideology aside. They might want to go down swinging."
Wes Allison can be reached at email@example.com or (202) 463-0577.
[Last modified January 12, 2008, 23:06:48]