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Republicans worry about keeping factions reined in

Republican leaders say there is unity in the drive to unseat President Obama, but they express concerns about challenges to the establishment.
/ Source: The New York Times

Mitt Romney arrives here this week to accept his nomination from the increasingly disparate coalition of factions known as the Republican Party, confronting the challenge of unifying them behind him and — should he win — exerting his own authority over a party that is in many ways still forging a post-Bush identity.

In interviews, Republican leaders said they were united and energized by the prospect of defeating President Obama and enacting bedrock Republican principles: shrinking the government and reducing spending and taxes.

At the same time, many said they were concerned about the crosscurrents that have churned the party, particularly since the emergence of the Tea Party movement three years ago. And on Sunday, thousands who supported the presidential campaign of Representative Ron Paul of Texas rallied here to challenge what they view as business as usual among Republicans.

Some leaders expressed worry that the turn to contentious social issues in the days leading up to the Republican National Convention, where the party platform is likely to embrace a tough anti-abortion stance and strict curbs on immigration, could undercut the party’s need to broaden its appeal. Many of them said they feared it was hastening a march to becoming a smaller, older, whiter and more male party.

“The Republican Party needs to re-establish its philosophy of the big tent with principles,” said Dan Quayle, the Republican former vice president. “The philosophy you hear from time to time, which is unfortunate, is one of exclusion rather than inclusion. You have to be expanding the base, expanding the party, because compared to the Democratic Party, the Republican Party is a minority party.”

George E. Pataki, the Republican former governor of New York, said he agreed with the Tea Party’s principle of reducing taxes and the size of the government. But he said he was concerned that antigovernment sentiments advocated by some Tea Party activists could push the it out of the political mainstream.

“What I fear is that that very positive desire to limit the power and the role of the federal government could turn into a philosophy that is antigovernment,” Mr. Pataki said. “Sometimes, those who I fear have that antigovernment view, as opposed to the limited-government view, rise to the center of the nominating process. I think that is not a good thing for the Republican Party.”

It is common for parties out of power to suffer an extended identity crisis. The Democrats struggled for 12 years until Bill Clinton emerged to unite left and center in an uneasy alliance to capture the White House. It has been happening to Republicans for at least four years as different conservative factions have competed for dominance and as outside forces, from the grass-roots Tea Party activists to “super PACs” and other groups financed by wealthy conservatives, have to some degree undercut the party establishment.

But in some ways, the Republican Party today appears more factionalized — ideologically, politically and culturally — than Republican leaders said they could remember in recent history.

There are evangelicals, Tea Party adherents, supply-siders who would accept no tax increases and a dwindling band of deficit hawks who might. There are economic libertarians who share little of the passion that social conservatives hold on issues like abortion and same-sex marriage. There are neoconservatives who want a hard line against Iran and the Palestinians, and realists who are open to diplomatic deal-cutting.

More than anything, the party is racked by the challenge to the establishment from Tea Party outsiders, who are demanding a purge of incumbents who play by a set of rules that many of these Republicans reject.

“The party itself is in a transition time,” said Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the No. 3 Republican in the House. Highlighting a shift in the House to a younger and less traditional generation of conservative leaders, he said, “My theory is the Senate is like a country club and the House is much like having a breakfast at a truck stop.”

Representative Jeff Flake, an Arizona Republican running for the Senate, said that if Republicans won in November, the magnitude of the country’s fiscal problems — and the general agreement among Republicans about addressing them by reducing spending — would overcome any jockeying among factions.

“I think the fiscal issues we face are so big and so overwhelming that there’s little reason to focus on the other things,” Mr. Flake said. “That makes it by definition easier to manage, because those issues are so big and require so much work.”

It may not be easy. When Republican leaders sought to push the party’s nominee, Representative Todd Akin, out of the Senate race in Missouri, for saying women who are victims of “legitimate rape” rarely get pregnant, Mike Huckabee, the conservative talk-show host and 2008 presidential candidate, came to his defense.

“In a party that supposedly stands for life, it was tragic to see the carefully orchestrated and systematic attack on a fellow Republican,” Mr. Huckabee wrote in an e-mail to supporters.

And the Tea Party’s success in unseating establishment candidates who are willing to compromise has produced fissures between some of the party’s older members and this new guard.

“For some folks in the party these days, it’s not only the Washington establishment they’re running against. They’re opposed to anything that is perceived as being any kind of establishment, even if they are conservative,” Mr. Quayle said. “To me, that is craziness. The party has got some real challenges coming down the pike. It’s a minority party, and we’ve got to realize that it’s a game of addition, not subtraction.”

Dick Armey, a former House majority leader who leads FreedomWorks, an advocacy group that helped organize the Tea Party, rejected that sentiment.

“There’s a tendency by a lot of folks that says, ‘We have been doing business in the way we have for so many years here, we shouldn’t be burdened by the election of so many people who want to make it difficult to continue doing business as usual,’ ” he said.

“There’s not a politician alive in the history of the world who doesn’t say, ‘If you’ll elect me, I’ll change the way I’ll do business,’ ” Mr. Armey said. “The problem the establishment guys have is we’re getting a bunch of guys elected who really mean what they say.”

Frank Keating, a former governor of Oklahoma, said the push by the Tea Party had a positive influence on his party.

“The Tea Party’s presence in the Republican Party is healthy for this reason: It moves the debate to the right,” he said. “The Republican Party, my party, needs to move in the direction of fiscal sanity.”

Senator Mike Lee, a Utah Republican who defeated the party’s incumbent, Bob Bennett, in 2010, said his victory reflected voter frustration with the way both parties had dealt with spending and taxes. He pointed to upsets this year in Indiana, where Senator Richard G. Lugar was defeated in the Republican primary by Richard E. Mourdock, a challenger supported by conservatives and Tea Party groups, and Texas, where Ted Cruz, a Tea Party candidate, won the Republican nomination for Senate by beating the candidate backed by Gov. Rick Perry, a conservative Republican.

“A lot of that has resulted from the fact that the federal government has grown so much just in the last two years at an outstanding rate,” Mr. Lee said. “That caused a lot of voters to ask questions that they might not have been so inclined to ask a few years ago.”

This story, "Republicans worry about keeping factions reined in," originally appeared in The New York Times.