Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, left, and Sen. John McCain, right, will both address the Memphis meeting of GOP activists this weekend.
Mark Wilson  /  Getty Images file
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, left, and Sen. John McCain, right, will both address the Memphis meeting of GOP activists this weekend.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 3/11/2006 1:48:05 PM ET 2006-03-11T18:48:05

Already well underway, the post-Bush Era enters the political equivalent of spring training season this weekend as Republican presidential contenders trek to Memphis to try out their rhetoric on a gathering of 1,800 activists from 37 states.

Arizona Sen. John McCain, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Virginia Sen. George Allen, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, and Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, all of whom will address the GOP’s Southern Regional Leadership Conference in Memphis, face a riddle.

How do they embrace the parts of President Bush's record that conservatives love — tax cuts, two impeccably conservative new Supreme Court justices, a fierce determination to fight Islamic terrorists — but ditch the troubling parts of Bush’s presidency for those on the right: unchecked illegal immigration, soaring federal spending (up 25 percent since 2002), and a foreign debt, as measured by the current account deficit, that is bigger than it has ever been.

And then there is Iraq -- where the rule of law and democracy still seem distant dreams and 132,000 U.S. troops remain.

Hardball and MSNBC.com will be in Memphis throughout the weekend bringing around-the-clock coverage of the Conference.

Not a 'Bash Bush' event
Despite Bush’s woes with Iraq and the Dubai ports deal, “I would be very surprised if this turned into a bash-Bush event,” said Republican strategist Patrick Davis, the former political director for the party’s Senatorial campaign committee.

Republican pollster Whit Ayres agreed, saying it would be unlikely for the 2008 GOP contenders to be “running away from a president who still enjoys greater than 80 percent approval among Republicans.”

At this prenatal stage of the 2008 battle, probably more important than the issues is the persona of each candidate.

The Memphis jamboree is a prom date, an audition for the starring role, a chance to wow the delegates with charisma and passion.

Davis makes the analogy to the early adopters — the tech geeks who are the first to buy the newest gadgets.

“Republican strategists will be looking for the person who can best connect with the early-adopting Republican activists,” Davis said.

Tennessean Frist enjoys the home turf advantage at Memphis, with 40 percent of the registered delegates coming from the Volunteer State.

Ayres said the straw poll of the attendees which National Journal’s Hotline will conduct Saturday will be a contest for bragging rights and will not be “generalize-able to anything.” Only those who take the trouble to show up in Memphis will participate in the straw poll, it will not be a random sample of the GOP primary electorate.

The missing man
And there’ll be a key missing man at Memphis: former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who according to a CNN/USA Today/ Gallup poll last month, is a favorite of Republicans, getting 33 percent with McCain right behind him at 28 percent and other GOP contenders trailing in single digits.

Whether Giuliani would play as a GOP primary candidate remains for now only an intriguing speculation. But for his future rivals’ “opposition research” teams, there’s a wealth of material, especially on one of today’s hot button issues for GOP base voters: immigration.

He argued in a 1996 speech that there are times when illegal immigrants “must have a substantial degree of protection,” saying that if parents fear deportation they may not send their kids to school.

The immigration issue will only get hotter in the next several weeks as the Frist-led Senate labors to pass a bill to crack down on illegals.

On conservative blogs such as Hugh Hewitt’s, Frist’s political action committee has been running ads in recent weeks billboarding this message alongside Frist’s photo: "Help Me Secure Our Borders. Show your support for a tough border bill. Secure our borders. No amnesty. Enforce existing laws."

Just as immigration has divided the nationalist wing of the Republican party from the libertarian wing, the Dubai ports deal has split the international trade constituency in the party from the nationalists. Worth watching in Memphis: Will any of the contenders be outspoken be in questioning the Dubai deal?

Up in arms about spending
Rep. Tom Feeney, R-Fla., a leading fiscal hawk, won’t be in Memphis to hear the speeches but does keep his finger on the pulse of GOP voters in his state. He points to another issue the grassroots Republicans are up in arms about: soaring federal spending.

“On domestic issues it is vital that we have a nominee that will level with the American people and provide adult leadership when it comes to spending,” Feeney said. “As bad as the Democrats are, Republicans have not had the discipline” needed to stop the growth of federal outlays.

Feeney said the next Republican president “must be willing to veto appropriations bill after appropriations bill” — something Bush hasn’t done — until spending growth is brought in line with the growth rate of the economy.

He added that “McCain has been terrific on earmark reform,” but said conservatives give the Arizona senator low marks for McCain-Feingold campaign spending bill that in their view restricts freedom of speech. Feeney said conservatives also unhappily recall that McCain joined the Senate Gang of 14 “that refused to restore the Senate’s rule of 51 votes” to confirm a Supreme Court nominee.

With an anti-incumbent feeling on the rise, it’s not an especially good time to be a Washington figure, which may create an opening at Memphis for an outside-the-Beltway politico such as Romney.

Referring to all the contenders, Davis said, “I would not be surprised to see these men distance themselves from the ‘corruption’ in D.C. and try to occupy some of the ‘independent outsider’ space Sen. McCain is currently occupying,”

Time for an outsider?
While Huckabee, Brownback and Romney aren’t yet household names in many GOP domiciles, one name will be on the mind of almost every Memphis attendee. The contenders speaking in Memphis “have to leave the activists and the political pundits with the distinct impression that they can win the Republican nomination — and more importantly, defeat Hillary Clinton,” Davis said.

Republicans haven’t had this kind of free-for-all coming at the end of two-term GOP presidency since 1987. With President Reagan weakened by the Iran-contra arms-for-hostages scandal, his vice president, George H.W. Bush was the front-runner in a contest with Sen. Bob Dole, Rep. Jack Kemp and TV evangelist Pat Robertson.

As often happens in GOP presidential primary battles, much of the party hierarchy supported the Establishment figure, Bush, who ended up the nominee.

This time there is no Establishment-blessed frontrunner. And that makes the Memphis carnival of contenders all the more fascinating to watch.

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