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The Republican Paradox: The Flaws That Bind

By Reid Wilson

Things could be worse for the Republican Party: The frontrunners for the party's nomination for President all boast credentials to make them strong general election contenders; none would be lacking in funds once the Democratic nominee is known - especially if her last name is Clinton; and whether one believes there are four frontrunners (including Fred Thompson) or three (not including John McCain), the primary electorate has a wide variety from which to choose.

And yet, it's not easy being an ideological Republican primary voter these days. Their choices include a social liberal from a solid blue state whose biography doesn't exactly scream family values, a former one-term governor who promised to outflank Ted Kennedy to the left on gay rights issues, a conservative maverick who delights in nothing more than thumbing his nose at his conservatives, and a former actor-turned-Senator-turned-actor with a reputation for laziness and a resume that includes the word "lobbyist."

Yet somehow, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, Governor Mitt Romney, Senator John McCain and Senator Fred Thompson lead the Republican pack, leaving behind candidates with much stronger conservative credentials who just can't raise the money to compete.

This is the Republican Paradox: Each frontrunner, while they might make excellent general election contenders, gives members of his party's base reason to pause. Each frontrunner has flaws in the eyes of that base that, in any other year or in the presence of a stronger conservative candidate, would disqualify him from competing.

But it is precisely because of those flaws that the candidates are succeeding: Were it not for the other three imperfect candidates, the first imperfect candidate would not be where he is.

Many pundits will admit that, on both sides of the aisle, the field is not what they expected it to be a year ago. Gone are Democrats like Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold, former Virginia Governor Mark Warner and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh. They believed they couldn't compete with fundraising powerhouses Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama.

On the Republican side, four candidates who might have been top competitors for the votes of conservatives have also bowed out: former Virginia Senator George Allen (thanks to "macaca"), former Colorado Governor Bill Owens (thanks to a divorce and his stand against a taxpayers' bill of rights) and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush (thanks to his last name).

Rutgers political science professor Ross Baker says some of the blame for keeping top names out of the race belongs to the man the remaining candidates hope to succeed. "A number of Republicans, sensing a more auspicious environment, would get in," were it not for the fact that those currently running will "constantly have to answer not only for themselves, but also for" President Bush.

That leaves the average primary voter or caucus-goer with a problem: Support a second-tier candidate who might have little chance of success, or hold their nose in favor of a top contender with flaws. Sensing the impending entry of Fred Thompson, who many Beltway pundits have labeled the second coming of Ronald Reagan, many Iowa Republicans are considering jumping away from their candidate to support Thompson, or perhaps former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who continues to hint at a candidacy.

The local Republican activists, according to Sioux County Republican Party chairman Mark Lundberg, "are like the guy who's already got a date to the prom, but he's looking for a cuter girl."

Thompson is beginning to attract his share of doubters as he inches closer to a run. One Republican strategist in South Carolina, where Thompson leads in at least one poll, says people are likely to be disappointed in the former Senator: "They're really casting their own belief system on Fred" when they're unsure of his platform and history.

Baker agrees, and sees the early infatuation with Thompson as a sign of general GOP malaise. "Republican primary voters are really at loose ends, hence the incredible anticipation and hopefulness about Fred Thompson."

But Republican primary voters are "notoriously" anti-Washington, and Thompson's history as a lobbyist could hurt in the long run. Being a lobbyist "is down there with the idea of cocaine dealers in the eyes of base Republican voters," said Baker.

The South Carolina Republican thinks that Thompson will "have to answer for any baggage his former clients had or have now," but he points out that other popular Republicans - chief among them Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, likely to sail to re-election this year - also have lobbying careers behind them. "Is [Thompson's lobbying] insurmountable? I don't think so."

Regardless of how the average Republican primary voter views Thompson's past professions, he brings other negatives to the table. Perhaps the most damaging is heightened expectations. "Public opinion shapers have cast him as the Reagan alternative," says the South Carolina Republican, who is unaffiliated with any campaign. "But Reagan isn't coming back."

Each candidate faces doubters within the Republican fold, though few suggest the base will go looking elsewhere within the field. Sioux County's Lundberg says the Iowa Straw Poll will be a chance for the base to cast a vote for a second-tier candidate; he says Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, and former Wisconsin Governor turned former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson have been performing well in Northwest Iowa, the state's ripest GOP region.

Many suggest that the GOP base will deal with whatever flaws a candidate might present. "It would be a mistake by the party if we want to spend too much of our time asking, 'Does this candidate meet the litmus test of conservatives?'" said national GOP strategist John Brabender.

Rudy Giuliani, John McCain, Fred Thompson and Mitt Romney do not lead the Republican field despite their negatives in the eyes of conservatives; they lead the field because of the others' flaws. When the general election roles around, conservatives may grumble with their less-than-perfect choice, but the vast majority will react as Sioux County Republican Party chairman Lundberg did: At the end of the day, he says, "if it's Rudy and Hillary, Rudy's our guy."

Reid Wilson, an associate editor and writer for RealClearPolitics, formerly covered polls and polling for The Hotline, National Journal’s daily briefing on politics. Wilson’s work has appeared in National Journal, Hotline OnCall and the Arizona Capitol Times. He also served as deputy press secretary for Senator Chris Dodd’s Presidential campaign. Wilson can be reached at reid@realclearpolitics.com

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