Video: The hyphenated GOP

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updated 10/26/2007 3:09:22 PM ET 2007-10-26T19:09:22
Political connections

Christian charity was conspicuously absent from the leaflets that supporters of the leading Republican presidential candidates handed out at last weekend's summit of socially conservative "values voters."

One from Fred Thompson's campaign denounced Mitt Romney and Rudy Giulianif or their stands on abortion and gay marriage. One from Romney supporters zinged Giuliani, Thompson, and John McCain for supporting campaign finance reform. A third, of unknown authorship, hit Thompson for having lobbied in the early 1990s for an abortion-rights group. If Sam Brownback hadn't just quit the race, somebody probably would have attacked him for participating in a Senate prayer group with Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The onslaught might not have followed the spirit of the Bible, but it did fit the insular character of the Republican presidential race, which increasingly is focused on the candidates' ideological purity -- or lack thereof. Romney started the most recent cycle when he declared that he represents "the Republican wing of the Republican Party." That prompted McCain to recount some of Romney's serial deviations from party dogma during his 1994 race against Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Thompson, who has been making up for lost time mostly by staying out of sight, chose that moment for a trip to New York, where he declared himself the one consistent conservative in the race, and Giuliani no conservative at all. Then last weekend came the crossfire of leaflets at the Family Research Council's "Values Voter Summit," and more brawling over which candidate has the right stuff at a debate hosted, appropriately enough, by Fox News Channel.

This ideological inquisition among Republicans isn't confined to the presidential race. The two House Republicans most critical of the Iraq war (Walter Jones of North Carolina and Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland) have drawn serious primary challengers from the right. So had Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, the Senate Republican most critical of the war, before he announced his retirement last month. Virginia Republicans recently decided to choose their next Senate nominee by convention rather than primary -- a move that favors conservative former Gov. Jim Gilmore over moderate Rep. Tom Davis.

In all these ways, Republican leaders are signaling they prize solidarity over outreach, and familiar thinking over independent ideas. But a case can be made that the party needs precisely the opposite. Disillusionment over Iraq and President Bush's performance, plus the bruising Bush political strategy that has focused more on unifying conservatives than on courting swing voters, has battered the Republican brand among Americans outside its core coalition. Some national polls now give Democrats their widest advantage in party identification since before Ronald Reagan's presidency.

The percentage of independents who view the GOP favorably has plummeted from 68 percent in 1994 to just 40 percent now in surveys by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center. In 2006, independents preferred Democrats over Republicans nearly 3-to-2 in House elections, and by crushing margins in most truly competitive Senate races.

The 2008 Democratic presidential contenders may be offering the GOP an opening by proposing new spending at a rate that could trouble moderate voters. But the Republican candidates are hardly positioning themselves to benefit. On problems ranging from health care to energy, they have retreated to a reflexive denigration of government and praise of unfettered markets aimed squarely at hard-core conservatives. Tellingly, the GOP hopefuls have broken with Bush primarily on the policies -- comprehensive immigration reform and the Medicare drug benefit -- that he consciously formulated to expand the party base. "It is a tired party and an uncertain party, and it is trying to reach back to ... the tried and true," frets Peter Wehner, the former Bush White House director of strategic initiatives who is now at the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.

After being routed in 2006, many Republican leaders argued that the party lost voters in the middle because it had not been conservative enough, particularly on spending. That's the view the presidential candidates are now reflecting. Giuliani, even with his recent concessions to party conventions on such issues as taxes and guns, pushed against that consensus by stressing national unity and inclusion in his riveting speech to the social conservatives last weekend. But he is a (qualified) exception in a party that seems committed to betting 2008 on the high-risk proposition that the way to recapture the center is to turn further to the right.

Copyright 2012 by National Journal Group Inc.

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