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Silver Lining in GOP's Dark Cloud

By Jack Kelly

President Bush has cast a huge, dark cloud over the Republican party. But in that cloud's very size there may be a silver lining for the GOP. Most of those Americans who don't think President Bush made a mistake by going to war in Iraq are appalled by how clumsily the war has been conducted.

The president's strong backing for the "comprehensive" immigration reform bill now before the Senate, compounded by his attack on the character and motives of those who oppose it have split the GOP. Thousands of Republicans have changed their voter registration to "independent." The proportion of voters who identify themselves as Republicans has fallen to 30.8 percent from 37.3 percent during the 2004 election campaign, according to a recent Rasmussen poll.

Contributions to the Republican National Committee from small donors have fallen by 40 percent, reported the Washington Times, forcing the RNC to shut down its telephone solicitation operation.

"Using advanced, hi-tech tools, Karl Rove has found the last pocket of support for Bush and destroyed it with laser-like efficiency," said Democratic Web logger Mickey Kaus of the illegal immigration controversy.

If present trends continue, Mr. Bush may be fortunate that his dog, Barney, can't tell pollsters what he really thinks.

Unless something truly remarkable happens between now and then, it's safe to assume that 99 percent of those who go to the polls in November of next year will want to vote for someone who is very different from George W. Bush. Democrats will try to hang the president like an albatross around Republican necks. Under normal circumstances, they would succeed.

But in Mr. Bush's uncanny ability to alienate Republicans nearly as much as he does Democrats may lie the GOP's salvation. Since so many of the president's heretofore loyal supporters are now furious with him, the Republicans vying to succeed him are free to join in the criticism, as all ten did in their debate in New Hampshire Tuesday night.

That debate was part of another deplorable trend that may also work to the GOP's advantage in 2008. The ferocious front-loading of the primaries (we'll have a de facto national primary Feb. 5, with the Florida primary even before that), means that the presidential campaign is already in full swing, a year ahead of what makes good sense from the standpoint of civics.

But what's bad for good government may in this instance be good for the GOP, because it will hasten Mr. Bush's fade into relative obscurity, and provide plenty of time for the Republican frontrunners to put distance between themselves and this very unpopular president.

While voters will want an un-Bush in 2008, it's by no means clear they'll want a Democrat. The challenge for the GOP nominee will be to extend the dissatisfaction voters feel with President Bush to dissatisfaction with business as usual in Washington, a task that may be made easier now that Congress' job approval has fallen back to where it was just before the 2006 elections. New cast, same old play.It will be hard for the current Democratic frontrunner, Sen. Hillary Clinton, to portray herself as a new face or a Washington outsider.

Sen. Barack Obama qualifies as a new face, and former Sen. John Edwards (sorta kinda) qualifies as an outsider. But they suffer from another problem, illustrated by a focus group the New York Post ran of independent voters during the Democratic presidential debate last Sunday night.

"The majority of an independent-voter panel that watched last night's presidential debate expressed serious concerns about the Democrats' ability to fight the war on terror," the Post reported Monday. "Doug Schofield, 36, a benefit accounts manager from Franklin, said the terror issue could push him to vote Republican --although he's gay and more in tune with the Democrats' liberal social agenda," the Post said. Americans want to elect an un-Bush in 2008. But we also want to elect a grown-up who will protect us.

The front-loading of the primaries makes it more likely the GOP will nominate the least Bush-like of its serious candidates. Because of his pro-choice stance on abortion, I doubt former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani could win a head to head match-up with either former Sen. Fred Thompson or former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But in a fragmented field, he could lock up the nomination before the race narrows.

Mr. Giuliani and Mr. Romney turned in stellar performances in the debate Tuesday night, as did undeclared candidate Thompson in a lengthy interview with Fox News. Where were these guys in 2000?

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