Will the fractious party be able to coalesce around one candidate?

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE February 4 2008


Will the fractious party be able to coalesce around one candidate?

LUIZA CH. SAVAGE February 4 2008


Will the fractious party be able to coalesce around one candidate?



“I’m waiting for a conservative,” says Steven Benjamin, a 56year-old Republican voter in Jacksonville, Fla., “who will put the ‘conserve’ back in conservative.” Benjamin, who works in finance, is worried about the weakening economy and the heavy government debt—a combination he blames on the Bush administration’s generous tax cuts and profligate spending by Congress, untamed by the presidential veto pen. He is looking for a fiscal conservative who will set things straight.

So far he hasn’t found one—despite the multitude of offerings in the Republican presidential field this year. “I haven’t warmed to anybody,” shrugs Benjamin, as he stands in a plaid shirt and white sneakers waiting to hear former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney at a rally at the University of North Florida. Romney, also a former CEO, has won the contests in Michigan and Nevada, the former victory secured in no small part by his promise to the auto industry of a US$100-billion bailout. But in this tumultu-

ous primary season, Romney took fourth place in South Carolina, where the victory went to maverick Arizona senator and war hero John McCain, who also won the New Hampshire primary. Former Arkansas governor and Baptist minister Mike Huckabee won in Iowa and was second in South Carolina. Got that?

Call it a draw. With the delegate-rich Florida primary looming on Jan. 29, there is no clear front-runner—and yet another wild card to consider: former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani ignored earlier contests and has been focusing his campaign on this state. For Republican primary voters, there are so many options—and yet, in some ways, so few. Behind the scattered field of candidates is an internecine battle between competing visions of conservatism. As a result, bitter rivalries between factions have kept Republican voters from rallying around any one candidate.

There is something of a circular firing squad

within the party. All those elements that made up the so-called Reagan coalition—the social conservatives, fiscal conservatives and foreign policy hawks—have turned on each other. And while they engage in attacks and recriminations, turnout among Republicans in early primary states has been far below that of Democrats, suggesting that GOP voters are less than enthusiastic about their options. This, of course, does not bode well for the

general election in November, even as the situation appears quite different in the Democratic camp—where voters are choosing from candidates they generally say they like, whose policy disputes are a matter of nuance, and whose biggest differences seem to lie in the realm of personality and life experience.


The divisive Republican contest is far more complicated. McCain, a senator who has bucked his party on many key issues, won New Hampshire and South Carolina on the strength of registered Independent voters who were allowed to vote in those so-called “open” primaries. Lost in the proclamations of McCain’s resurrection in South Carolina was the fact that he did not carry the Republican vote—depending on the exit poll you read, he either lost it to Mike Huckabee by one point in South Carolina (32 per cent to 31) or split it evenly. And McCain would likely have done even worse if Huckabee had not had to share the evangelical and socially con-

servative vote with former Tennessee senator and actor Fred Thompson, who garnered 17 per cent in the state (Thompson dropped out of the race three days later).

Perhaps it’s not surprising. McCain bucked his party to vote against the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003. He has alienated many voters with his attempts to create a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants, and angered others by passing

campaign finance reform legislation that conservatives consider an affront to free speech. He bucked the National Rifle Association on some issues, and has embraced the cause of climate change. While those moves helped him win over many Independent voters, they are not allowed to vote in Florida’s Republican primary, or in most of the remaining contests this year.

The scattered field and McCain’s victory frustrates Mike McGuigan, a 44-year-old restaurant and bar owner from Fort Myers, Fla., who like many in the “anyone-but-McCain”

faction speaks of the senator in expletives. “He’s dead wrong on immigration and that scares me,” says McGuigan. “He didn’t vote for the Bush tax cuts, and that scares me. He’s got liberal positions on two key issues. I see McCain on one side and the other Republican candidates on the other, and I’m worried that because the Republican vote is so split, McCain will win.”

But if this is a civil war, McCain isn’t the only target. So is Huckabee, the darling of the religious right. He is folksy, funny, plays a mean guitar, and has pledged to amend the constitution to ban abortion and gay marriage. He recently left some secular Republicans dumbfounded after explaining to an audience in Michigan that “I believe it’s a lot easier to change the constitution than it would be to change the word of the living God. And that’s what we need to do—to amend the con-

stitution so it’s in God’s standards rather than try to change God’s standards so it lines up with some contemporary view.” His shoestring campaign was helped to victory in Iowa in part by “Huck’s Army”—thousands of volunteers who showed up from around the country to make phone calls and organize supporters. They included home-schooled

children and women dressed to conceal their wrists and ankles.

The Christian conservative wing of the party may have been crucial to bringing George W. Bush to the White House in the elections of 2000 and 2004, but its members are finding there are limits to Republican gratitude. The anti-tax, Washington-based organization, Club for Growth, has spent US$750,000 on television ads attacking Huckabee in various states, highlighting his support for increased taxes on alcohol, gasoline, cigarettes and Internet transactions. While Huckabee’s Christian brand of Republicanism included talk of compassion for illegal immigrants and convicts, Club president Pat Toomey has accused him of sounding like a Democratic populist, “more like John Edwards than Ronald Reagan.” The group has received money from backers of Romney, who is shaping up as the preferred candidate of the business-minded wing of the party. Other conservative groups have also run ads against Huckabee.

Before the South Carolina primary, conservative radio celebrity Rush Limbaugh declared his animosity toward both McCain and Huckabee on his show, declaring that, “If either of these two guys get the nomination, it’s going to destroy the Republican

party, it’s going to change it forever, be the end of it. A lot of people aren’t going to vote. You watch.” McCain and Huckabee then came in first and second in the state.

WHEN ROMNEY ARRIVES to speak in Jacksonville, some 750 people have braved a near-biblical downpour to see him. He may be a Repub-

lican candidate running for the Republican nomination after seven years of Republican rule, but the big sign behind him says, “Washington is broken.” He talks a lot about change. “Change begins with us,” announce the signs his campaign has handed out to supporters for the benefit of the TV cameras. Change, of course, is the buzzword of the Democrats. “Change We Can Believe In” is Barack Obama’s campaign slogan. Hillary Rodham Clinton’s is “Ready for Change.” Romney is self-conscious about this. He wants to be clear that his “change” would be different, and he tackles it with a joke about Obama’s campaign signs that say simply, “Change.” Chuckles Romney, “Someone said to me, ‘Change.’ That’s what you’ll have left in your pocket if he’s president.” Laughter all around.

Romney walks a fine line, trying to appeal to those conservatives fed up with current policies or runaway spending and debt and a drawn-out war, without alienating those who support the President. As with the other candidates, it’s often a little hazy whether he is running on the President’s record or against it. Huckabee has disparaged Bush’s foreign policy as “arrogant” and suffering from a “bunker mentality.” He later said he supported the President, and was only refer-

ring to his former defence secretary.


For a while now, Bush has been blamed for blowing up the Reagan coalition, even inspiring a cottage industry of books on how conservatism can be saved from Bushism. On immigration, he was with big business and McCain, pushing for an immigration reform that would allow people who came to the country illegally to stay. While Bush appealed to social conservatives through his faith-based initiatives and also delivered hefty tax cuts, he presided over a vast increase in government spending on wars and a large prescription drug benefit for seniors. The combination has propelled the country into massive debt. And his interventionist foreign policy, so costly in both blood and treasure, has riled conservatives who would prefer to contain dictatorships, rather than topple and replace them.

“Bush is not a conservative. He is an extremist,” says Benjamin at the Romney rally. “Bigger government, bigger spending, more intervention in your life and in other countries. That sounds like a liberal, doesn’t it?” Bush’s latest move, to offer a US$150-billion stimulus package for the ailing U.S. economy, largely

in the form of tax rebates, worries Benjamin even more. “There is only one way out of debt. You have to stop spending and pay it back. You can’t do stupid things like give tax rebates. It’s like a bleeding man giving more blood,” he says, shaking his head.

Without mentioning Bush by name, Romney allows at one point that whatever one thinks of the President’s policies, “He has

kept us safe for the past six years. Let’s give the President his due.” It’s as generous as he’ll get all night. Behind him hangs a banner with his “To Do List.” The top items are ‘Make America Safer; End Illegal Immigration; Reduce Taxes.” He gets applause at various times in his speech, but nothing compares to what happens when he declares that ‘Illegal immigration is a drag that’s got to stop—and I’ll do it!” The crowd leaps to its feet, some waving American flags, and most chanting “Mitt! Mitt!”

Romney’s very blond wife, Ann, is there to bolster his family values pitch with talk of their 38-year marriage, their five sons, and their 11 grandchildren. She’s also there to testify that in his career he turned around failing companies and made the dysfunctional Salt Lake City Winter Olympics into a money-maker. “He wants to go to Washington and clean up the mess there. He is a

guy who fixes things,” she says. “If there was ever a time Washington needed change, it’s now,” Romney adds.

Many business-minded Republicans, like 66-year-old Jacksonville realtor Jon Bachmann, are sold on Romney. “He has the business know-how,” Bachmann says. “He is the only one who has turned companies around— and made millions doing it. He’s successful. We need a successful person—not a politician who has lived on the government payroll all his life.”

But so far, Romney is still struggling with social conservatives, who accuse him of flipflopping on abortion and gay rights—running as a social moderate when he campaigned in liberal Massachusetts at an earlier stage in his career, and then declaring that he had changed his mind. Still others—including many evangelical Christians—don’t approve of his Mormon religion. Romney never mentions that he’s a Mormon, but he courts the family values crowd with praise for the American family and his declaration that kids should get married before making babies. Then there is his net worth—somewhere around US$200 million, some of which he has been pouring into his campaign, and a sum that gives him hope in a contest that could turn into a war of attrition. When Huckabee tells voters he’s “the guy you work alongside, not the guy who gives you the pink slip,” it’s Romney he’s got in mind. Romney tries to make up for his wealth, and a childhood as the son of a threeterm governor of Michigan, with an aw-shucks manner and stories of his father’s humble roots. He’s also the self-deprecating husband, joking that when he asked his wife whether in her wildest dreams she’d ever imagined him running for president of the U.S., “She said, ‘Mitt, you weren’t in my wildest dreams.’ ” Laughter all around.

Meanwhile, Giuliani, who has staked his whole campaign on his leadership role as “America’s mayor” who rallied a nation after 9/11, and his hawkish string-them-up-by-theirthumbs foreign policy, has been stumping around Florida longer than anyone. But he’s having trouble with the family values stuffbeing pro-choice, pro-gun control, and married to his third wife. “Giuliani would be great on defence, but he’s a very liberal guy,” says Richard Ashley, a 50-year-old accountant from Jacksonville who hasn’t picked a candidate yet. “He doesn’t match up with my views. He is a one-issue candidate and his personal baggage will come back to haunt him.” Adds Norm Blum, a 52-year-old owner of a Jacksonville advertising company and a registered Independent who has come to check out Romney: “I don’t like Giuliani because he can’t get along with his kids. I’m sorry, but that bothers me.”

In the end it matters less whether they can find a candidate who would share Ronald Reagan’s appeal to all factions of the party. What really matters is whether Limbaugh’s warning of disgruntled Republicans staying home in November comes to pass. McGuigan, the McCain critic from Fort Myers, says that if McCain ends up the nominee, he’ll somehow hold his nose and head to the polls. “I would vote for him—reluctantly,” he says. “He would be the lesser of two evils against Hillary or Obama.” M