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The GOP's Looming Battle

By E. J. Dionne

WASHINGTON -- As it looks beyond the elections of 2006, a Republican Party known for ideological solidarity is on the cusp of a far more searching philosophical battle than are the Democrats, historically accustomed to bruising fights over the finer points of political theory.

The coming Republican brawl reflects the fact that President Bush will leave office with no obvious heir, and Bushism as a political philosophy has yet to establish itself in the way that Reaganism did.

Moreover, the four top candidates in most polls for the GOP's 2008 presidential nomination -- Sen. John McCain, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich -- all promise very different styles of leadership.

The Democrats, in the meantime, are engaged in an argument over a question rooted more in social psychology than policy: Can Hillary win?

True, there is some debate over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's stance on Iraq, and a few on the party's left criticize her as too centrist. But much of the Democratic discussion has to do with whether the New York senator will be helped or hurt by her public image and her close ties to a certain former president. The Hillary talk is more about persona than ideology.

The battle for the future defies each party's self-image. In the 2006 elections, Republicans are painting the Democrats as divided, especially on Iraq and national security, and themselves as united behind a strategy of "victory in the war on terror.''

But beneath this year's slogans, Republicans are decidedly mixed in their view of the Bush years, and each of their leading presidential candidates proposes important breaks with the Bush approach.

Paradoxically it is McCain, Bush's leading antagonist in the presidential nominating contest of 2000, who may at the moment be the closest thing to a Bush legacy candidate. McCain is playing down his maverick image and pointing to the ways he's been a Bush supporter, especially on Iraq.

McCain, who voted against Bush's tax cuts, told Bloomberg's Al Hunt last month that he now favors making them permanent. That McCain is willing to risk being branded as the candidate who was against the Bush tax cuts before he was for them is a sign of his eagerness to court the president's core constituencies -- and his success so far in doing so.

But when someone with as complex a relationship with Bush as McCain's emerges as the candidate of continuity, it suggests the limits of the president's imprint on his party.

Giuliani has strongly backed Bush in the war on terror. But as a past supporter of abortion rights and gay rights, Giuliani would be the most socially liberal candidate to have a fighting chance in the GOP primaries in decades. Contrast that with Bush's strong ties to religious conservatives. Gingrich has made clear he would run against Washington, which at the moment is Bush's Washington. "Neither party currently is where the country is,'' Gingrich has said, hardly an endorsement of the status quo.

And Romney, his party's most interesting new voice, could be expected to run in part as a problem-solver who worked with Democrats in Massachusetts for a bipartisan approach to health care. This would mean arguing for a break from the bitter partisanship of the Bush Era.

Even in this year's elections, Republicans are fleeing aspects of the Bush record. Many conservatives are criticizing the deficits that they voted for when they supported Bush's earlier budgets. There is the deep internal rift over immigration. And many in Congress (notably Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska) have been critical of the administration's handling of the war in Iraq.

From the New Deal years to the Reagan era, Democrats were usually the party that proudly -- if bitterly -- hashed out how to respond to the large issues of the times, including the Cold War, civil rights and Vietnam. They may yet provide the home for the big debate the country needs over economic globalization and the war on terror.

But for now, the Democrats' intense reaction against Bush has made regaining power Issues No. 1, 2 and 3 for most in the rank and file. Sen. Clinton divides Democrats far more on the question of whether she can win than on her carefully wrought policy positions, which are close to the Democrats' philosophical center of gravity.

And so while Democrats decide in the coming months what they think of Hillary Clinton, Republicans already are moving beyond George W. Bush. The debate in the GOP will be over how far to move -- and where. The Republican argument is potentially more divisive, but it may be more interesting.

(c) 2006, Washington Post Writers Group

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