Archive for Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Republican candidates moving to middle

February 27, 2007


It is too early to make definitive statements about 2008, but the evidence points to a change in the tone, if not the substance, of the Republican message.

Although moderation is in the eye of the beholder and difficult to define, the GOP message and messenger are much more likely than in the recent past to be less beholden to, or a member of, the party's strongly conservative wing.

There are two reasons:

¢ The background and views of the two leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination, Sen. John McCain of Arizona and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani.

¢ The lesson that may lie in the success of GOP governors with high approval ratings. Florida's Charlie Crist, California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and Connecticut's Jody Rell are thriving with a vision that features a larger role for government.

Since the nomination of Ronald Reagan in 1980, moderates have fared poorly in Republican presidential primaries. The GOP has stood for lower taxes, toughness on defense and opposition to abortion, gay rights and gun control.

But while McCain and Giuliani spout that line on taxes and terrorism, their views on lifestyles issues are less in sync with recent Republican tradition.

Yes, McCain is firmly anti-abortion and opposes gay marriage, but opposes a federal constitutional amendment to ban same-sex unions. He is seeking to mend relations with conservative Christians; in the past he has been critical of some of their leaders.

Giuliani favors abortion rights, gay rights and gun control - which puts him at odds with most GOP primary voters. Yet, his image as a strong leader arising out of his post-9/11 record so far has him ahead of the GOP pack in virtually all polls.

It is the GOP governors who want to use government more actively, in some cases forsaking reliance on the marketplace, whose high approval numbers might be the best indicator of what is to come.

Crist campaigned to be "the peoples' governor," soft-pedaling issues that appeal to social conservatives. He won comfortably and then took on the insurance industry, which had contributed heavily to his campaign, with a plan approved by lawmakers to cut rates. The key is exposing the state to potentially much greater financial liability in case of a catastrophic storm - an approach that made many fiscal conservatives wring their hands.

Although he is still in the early months of his administration, Crist has astronomical popularity. A Quinnipiac University February poll found him with a 69 percent job-approval rating among registered voters, with only 6 percent saying they disapproved. His support is uniform across party lines. Democrats give him thumbs-up 65.7 percent.

Rell's high personal ratings despite less enthusiastic public support for some of her proposals has earned her the nickname "Teflon Jody." She recently proposed an income-tax hike to pay for additional education spending. Even though 56 percent of Connecticut registered voters said they opposed the tax hike, 72 percent gave her a positive job approval rating.

Schwarzenegger's first term in Sacramento was marked by partisan bickering and public rejection of his proposed reform measures that were opposed by Democrats who control the Legislature. He won re-election last November with a campaign that played down ideology, and then proposed that California provide health insurance to all and redouble its environmental efforts, not usually GOP priorities.

But a poll by the Public Policy Institute of California last month gave him a 58 percent approval rating, 55 percent among Democrats, 60 percent among independents and 72 percent among Republicans.

Of course, none of this means that the Republican message and appeal will lean less to the right. And nothing has changed the inclination of those who vote in Republican presidential primaries.

Yet, there are signs worth watching. In politics change occurs before most realize it. Just as the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton modified its focus to remain competitive, the same thing may be happening on the other side of the aisle for 2008.


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