Crisis of nerves hits Republicans
By Edward Luce in Washington
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007
Published: April 24 2007 18:38 | Last updated: April 24 2007 18:38
Having visited countless Republican precincts across the country in the past few months, Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster, likens his party’s mood to the salesmen in David Mamet’s play Glengarry Glen Ross – everyone is desperate to make a sales target they fear they cannot meet.
While the Democratic presidential race draws strength from the exuberance that followed last year’s victory in mid-term congressional elections, the Republican party is caught in a spiral of angst that threatens to pull its presidential candidates down with it.
Judged against previous contests, this year’s Republican candidates are relatively high quality and well qualified. Yet, according to a recent poll, a clear majority of Republicans are dissatisfied with the field available – far higher than the number for the Democrats.
That might help explain why so many are supporting a second-tier actor with an undistinguished two-term Senate record who has not declared his candidacy – Fred Thompson.
According to Grover Norquist, head of the influential Americans for Tax Reform, Republicans are also unaccustomed to a race in which there is no obvious heir apparent. The fact that Dick Cheney, the vice-president, who has suffered two heart attacks and Tuesday paid an unscheduled visit to his doctor for checks on a blood clot, will not be running in 2008 makes this the most open Republican field in years.
In reality, says Mr Norquist, his party should be happy with the electability of any one of the three front-runners: Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts; John McCain, the Republican runner-up to George W. Bush in 2000; or Rudy Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and hero of 9/11.
“Republicans are looking for a knight in shining armour to come along and it is not going to happen,” says Mr Luntz. “The party is in a terrible state of fear that having lost Capitol Hill they are now destined to lose the White House as well.”
Meanwhile, each leading candidate is pursuing the questionable strategy of pandering to the party’s social conservative base – in a cycle where electability could matter much more to the Republican rank and file than ideological purity.
Of the three, Mr Romney, who out-fundraised the other two with $23m (€17m, £11m) in the first quarter, has so far attracted the most consistent charges of being a “flip-flopper”.
Although he previously supported women’s “right to choose” on abortion, Mr Romney says he underwent a “conversion” to the “pro-life” position in 2004.
Likewise, he has switched from supporting stem-cell research to opposing it. Perhaps most embarrassingly, Mr Romney last year became a life member of the National Rife Association and recently claimed to have been a hunter “pretty much all of my life”. It turns out he has only hunted twice in his life – once as a teenager.
Nor, as he had originally claimed, does he own a gun. “Some people say one thing and then they do another,” said one of the second-tier Republican candidates. “Mr Romney says one thing and then he says another.”
Yet, Mr Romney, who looks like a man straight out of central casting, can also point to genuine presidential qualities – he has run a large US state, he managed the successful 2002 Winter Olympics and he made millions (up to $500m according to some estimates) as a venture capitalist.
Then there is Mr McCain, who “only” raised $12m in the first quarter, and who hopes to restore his front-runner status at the formal launch on Wednesday of his candidacy in New Hampshire. Mr McCain used to joke that his political base was the mainstream media because of his popularity when he ran his “straight talk express” bid for the presidency in 2000.
But the senator from Arizona has undermined his reputation as a man of unwavering principle in the past few months in a series of U-turns. These have included a courtship of Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, the ageing televangelists whom Mr McCain once called “agents of intolerance”.
Mr McCain also recently abandoned his strong support for a liberal reform of the immigration system, which he had co-sponsored last year with Ted Kennedy. And he has been mocked for a lack of straight talking over Iraq, on which he supports Mr Bush’s unpopular “new way forward”.
Again, however, Mr McCain, boasts genuine charisma and presidential substance.
Lastly there is Mr Giuliani, who has surprised everyone by topping the Republican polls in spite of being a three-times-married, pro-gay rights, anti-gun, social liberal. But even he has been back-tracking on his long-held principles. All of which is something of a puzzle considering the fact that consistency and integrity are among the most highly prized virtues for social conservatives.
“Character is very important to Republican primary voters,” says Tony Fabrizio, a Republican strategist. “If they think you’re lying or trying to be expedient that is a problem.”
Or, as another Republican strategist put it: “We have three great candidates who are right now doing their best to prove that they are not.”
Additional reporting by Andrew Ward