In the midst of a shaky economy and an unpopular war, it is nothing short of astonishing that the Republican Party’s contenders run neck-and-neck with Democrats in test matchups. But the GOP is going to lose next fall if it cannot reunify the three pieces of its conservative base: evangelicals, libertarians and hawks.
As Republicans head into one of the last televised debates before the voting starts, the cracks in their Reagan-Bush coalition not only are showing, they’re getting wider. The ideological ala carte candidates – Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul and Rudy Giuliani – are generating buzz; the one-size-fits-all conservatives – Mitt Romney, John McCain and Fred Thompson – have yet to show they can unify the party.
Just look at the TV ads and polls and you can see what I mean. Huckabee, an ordained Southern Baptist preacher, is fast becoming the semi-official candidate of the evangelicals, and is rising in Iowa as a result. In a new TV ad running there, he touts his religion. “Faith doesn’t influence me,” he says. “It really defines me.” Even Pat Robertson didn’t say that in 1988.
Among libertarians – the anti-tax, small-government crowd that worships at the altar of Ayn Rand and Milton Friedman – Paul is the baptized hero. His TV ad in New Hampshire (where he is about to crack double digits) features local voters praising his “Live Free or Die” attitude, and he is on course to raise $12 million via the Internet by the end of December.
For the hawks – law-and-order crusaders against Communism and now terrorism – Giuliani is the Man, going George W. Bush and Dick Cheney one better in confrontational, I-love-Armageddon fervor. His new TV ad in New Hampshire stresses his pacification of New York in trying times. The implication: what he did to squeegee men, criminals and welfare cheats he can do to al-Qaida, Hamas and Hugo Chavez. Rudy is making a serious play in New Hampshire, lured by some positive poll numbers.
Romney’s spinners were displeased when I said on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” that, by trying to be all things to all people, their candidate could end up being nobody to anybody. As they see it the governor of Massachusetts – leading in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina – appeals across the board. No other candidate,” said Romney spokesman Kevin Madden, “can appeal to all three” conservative subgroups.
Well, I agree that Mitt has a smooth operation that runs like buttah, and that he is loaded with cash and self-discipline. And yes, Romney is leading in Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. But, as I travel in those and other states, I don’t sense a lot of bottom-up hunger for him. There is a touch of Amway to the deal somehow.
In the old days, perhaps McCain or Thompson – each with solid, comprehensive conservative records – would the logical unifiers. But, for personal and career reasons, it’s not easy for either to accomplish that difficult task. They’ve both been around Washington for decades. That is a handicap in presidential campaigns, which tend to favor crusaders over insiders. Wear and tear may be a factor. There is a lot of flight time on McCain’s jet, and perhaps not enough gas in Thompson’s pickup.
All of which explains why, at this late date, the GOP race seems so formless and chaotic. The nomination is very much worth having. But to grab it, someone is going to have to step forward on the stage to play Ronald Reagan with a script by Karl Rove.
The next change for that person to emerge is Wednesday night’s CNN debate in St. Petersburg, Fla. I’ll let you know if Reagan/Rove shows up.