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Archive for Sunday, March 18, 2007

Republicans seeking better presidential candidate

March 18, 2007

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We have a pretty good idea what the post-Clinton Democrats will look like, even if the exemplar of the post-Clinton Democrats is named Clinton herself. They'd prefer to fight the Bush tax cuts than fight the Bush pre-emptive war. They'd restore the big regulatory state but would not retain the big-brother civil-liberties assault. Not difficult to imagine.

But now more than ever, we have no idea what the post-W Republicans will look like, except to say that they won't look a lot like the Democrats. They'll support the war in Iraq, probably. They'll fight for lower taxes, mostly. They'll oppose abortion, maybe. They'll debate the legacy of George W. Bush's presidency. Mostly they'll fight each other about the meaning of Ronald Reagan.

That's why political junkies might regard the Democratic race - in its simplest terms a struggle between a New York senator who wants to be the first female president and an Illinois senator who wants to be the first black president and some others who just want to be president - as a 10 p.m. network television serial. But last week came another reminder that for unbridled emotions, raw ambition and even more raw bitterness, the real drama is on the Republican side.

The party's sense of determination and drift, of anxiety and impatience, of passion and panic was underlined in the most remarkable public-opinion survey of the season, the New York Times/CBS News Poll that found that 57 percent of Republicans want more choices than they currently have for the 2008 presidential nomination.

The Republicans are in a swivet. Three out of five of the Republican primary voters surveyed by the Times and CBS described the GOP today as divided. They divided evenly on whether the next Republican presidential nominee should continue the president's policies or change to more conservative policies. And perhaps most remarkable of all, a majority of these Republican voters think a candidate who opposes the war in Iraq has a better chance of winning the election. The president hasn't been repudiated, but his own supporters sure have some second thoughts.

This is more than the usual case of a party or a people saying that they'd like to vote "no" rather than choose among the candidates. This is more than the usual syndrome where a come-from-almost-nowhere running mate (a good example was Sen. Edmund S. Muskie of Maine, running with Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey of Minnesota in 1968) seems to be a fresher, more appealing face than the nominee himself. This is outright Republican rebellion against the menu the party is offering for the big meal.

You do not see this every day, especially in the GOP, which oftentimes behaves more like a fraternal lodge than a political party, selecting a party worthy (best example: Sen. Robert J. Dole of Kansas, 1996) who seems to deserve the nomination more than he wants it.

The Republican candidates are too-something for the Republicans. John McCain may be too willing to consort with the Democratic enemy. Mitt Romney may be too Mormon, which is a shame given the Republican Party's historical role as Lincoln's party of equality. Rudolph W. Giuliani may be too liberal, or too often married, or too pugnacious, or too New York, which may or may not be true.

Right now Mr. Giuliani is the most fascinating man in the room. It is a role he cultivates, a role he loves, a role he plays with great ease. His face is on the cover of magazines and his name is on every lip. The late Mayor John Lindsay of New York, who wanted so badly to be president in 1972 (brochure theme: "While Washington's been talking about our problems, John Lindsay's been fighting them"), would so envy his successor's success.

We all know the social conservative brief against Mr. Giuliani. His biggest too-something is that he is too far from the generalized, traditional views of religious conservatives. I've written that myself, but now I'm not so sure. Look deep into the new poll and you'll see that Republicans provide Mr. Giuliani with a 50 percent favorable rating (with only 9 percent saying they have an unfavorable view of him). Mr. McCain is stuck at 32 percent, Mr. Romney at 14 percent, and both have about double the rate of negatives as Mr. Giuliani.

What's going on here? Maybe the Democrats are making Mr. Giuliani ever more appealing to Republicans. The more they talk about the country's lack of security (financial security, national security, personal security), the more Mr. Giuliani may be strengthened, because he's seen as tenacious and self-confident in turbulent times, and if you want security, Rudy's your man. What the Republican "base," as the television yackers describe it, know about New York is that it is, to be sure, turbulent. That base also knows that Mr. Giuliani was a successful mayor of a turbulent city in a turbulent time.

So the Republicans are in rebellion, in upheaval, in confusion. They are giving contradictory signals (Rudy's OK - no, he's not, and we need someone new in the field). This is usually the Democratic role in presidential political seasons.

Which brings us to the challenge facing Mr. Giuliani and, for that matter, everyone else who's running. This may not be a time when the Republicans want someone to follow the grass roots. This may be a time when the Republicans want someone to lead. The two Presidents Bush prevailed in times when the Republicans followed their instincts. The greatest Republican president of our time prevailed because he changed Republican instincts, when he led and did not follow.

- David Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post -Gazette.

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