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Keep an Eye on the GOP Field

By David Shribman

Psst. Let me tell you a secret. The Republicans also will be nominating someone for president in 2008.

Not that you could tell by reading the papers or watching television, where Barack Obama's primary-school education, Hillary Rodham Clinton's White House education and John Edwards' really, really big house in North Carolina are dominating the news. But the Republicans are better at winning presidential elections recently (they've won about 72 percent of them since 1968), so maybe we ought to pause a second and consider them.

It isn't only the Democrats who are going through an identity crisis. The Republicans are, too. There's been a Bush or a Dole on every GOP ticket for the last seven elections. There's been a prominent role for religious conservatives in each of those elections. This may be the election when the Republicans' conviction that they have replaced the Democrats as the natural party of executive government will be tested.

The Democratic race is interesting because of the personalities involved, because of the novelty factor of having a female front-runner and a strong black challenger, but there's no mystery about what the Democratic ticket will stand for next year. It will oppose the war in Iraq, oppose the Bush tax cuts, favor a stronger regulatory state and favor vigorous action to fight global warming.

The Republican race lacks such colorful personalities, its only novelty factors being these two questions: Can a party in the post-boomer era actually nominate someone older than Ronald Reagan was when he was elected? Can a party competing in a post-diversity nation nominate a Mormon for president? There actually are a Bush and a Dole who could be nominated, just for old times' sake, but the Bush (Jeb, the former governor of Florida) has said he's not interested, and the Dole (Elizabeth, the senator from North Carolina) performed so poorly as chief of the Republican senatorial campaign effort that she couldn't get a hearing.

A year from the Iowa precinct caucuses and New Hampshire primary, you've got to wonder what the Republicans are going to do.

They agree basically on Iraq, but there are outliers who could cause trouble. Sen. John McCain of Arizona (the old guy) is the chief author of the "surge" idea in Iraq; his days of opposing everything George W. Bush stood for are way, way in the past. But watch Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, whose Vietnam bona fides (two Purple Hearts) are every bit as compelling as McCain's. He was the lone Republican dissenter in a key Iraq vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month, and his disquiet about Iraq has not been quiet. If he gets in the Republican race, the silence on Iraq in the caucuses and primaries would be shattered in about a nanosecond.

Then there is the Christian right. Iowa's Democrats are bigger peaceniks than Democrats generally in the country (they have been at least since 1984, when Gary Hart found himself delivering an entire speech on the nuclear freeze in Council Bluffs), and its Republicans are more fervent religious conservatives than Republicans elsewhere (which is why the Rev. Pat Robertson actually finished ahead of Vice President George H.W. Bush in the 1988 caucuses).

Liberal, anti-nuclear, pro-labor, pro-environment, pro-abortion activists are the straws that stir the Democrats' drink in the caucuses and primaries. Anti-abortion, anti-smut, anti-Hollywood, anti-secular activists are the straw in the Republicans' (non-alcoholic) drink. I exaggerate, but only a bit. The truth is that there are plenty of people for the liberal Democratic base to vote for next year and hardly anyone for the (religious) conservative Republican base to vote for, except maybe Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, who will double his support in the polls if he ever reaches 2 percent.

Now Mr. Brownback is not someone to be underestimated. He defeated Sen. Bob Dole's handpicked GOP regular in a special Kansas election and has the advantage of appealing to the largely Protestant mass of religious conservatives (prominent in Des Moines) while actually being a Catholic (helpful in Dubuque). He's smart, agile, appealing. He's from a neighboring state. But he's still a long shot.

The hands that move serenely together in prayer are being wrung in despair right now. Former Gov. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts is a social conservative, all right, but he has consorted with social liberals in the Bay State. Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani supports abortion rights and thus is going to have a hard time having lunch in Ottumwa and Cedar Rapids.

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas is a graduate of Ouachita Baptist University and the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary -- beat that, George W. Bush, Yale '68 -- and was president of the Arkansas Baptist State Convention. As an actual religious conservative, as a onetime overweight guy now 110 pounds lighter, he preaches an appealing gospel of abstention. But a score of unknowns like him have tried to replicate Jimmy Carter's Iowa insurgency, and none has prevailed since the onetime peanut farmer pulled it off a third of a century ago.

All this is why the Republican race may be more interesting than the Democratic race. The Democrats will debate nuances (even if Sen. John F. Kerry, who lives in the wrinkles of nuance, is out of the race). The Republicans will debate issues. The Democrats will agree with each other (which, as a novelty for the party, shouldn't be minimized). The Republicans will fight each other.

In the end, how surprising will it be for the Democrats to nominate someone who is black, female, liberal or some combination of the three? But for the Republicans to nominate someone who makes religious conservatives uneasy rather than someone whom the religious conservatives made into a presidential contender? That would truly be something different.

Copyright 2007 The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

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