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GOP confessional

Now is the season, apparently, for Republican presidential candidates to air their past indiscretions.

March 11, 2007

HERE'S THE THING about trial balloons: They soar higher if you unload some ballast. Hence the shedding of personal baggage by many potential contenders for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2008, who recognize that the weight of their past indiscretions could hold them down later if they don't dump it now.

The most dramatic of the season's unburdenings to date came last week from former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who is exploring a run for his party's nomination. He admitted during an interview with evangelical Christian leader James C. Dobson that he was having an extramarital affair even while leading the impeachment drive against former President Clinton over the latter's affair with Monica Lewinsky. This does not make him a hypocrite, huffed the twice-divorced Gingrich, because that whole impeachment thing was about Clinton's perjury, not what he did with Lewinsky.

Whether his audience will buy this remains to be seen. But if they don't, they can always consider Republican front-runner Rudolph W. Giuliani. As mayor of New York, Giuliani underwent a spectacularly messy separation in 2000; after his mistress was forbidden to set foot in the mayor's mansion, Giuliani lived briefly with a gay couple. And he is now trying to reconcile with his son.

This kind of thing doesn't play well among the conservative base, so Giuliani uttered the first of his last words on the matter on Monday: "The responsibility is mine," he said during a visit to divorce-friendly California. "The more privacy I can have for my family, the better we're going to deal with all these difficulties."

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, meanwhile, is twisting himself into rhetorical pretzels trying to explain away a personal lapse that's even more unforgivable among social conservatives than sins of the flesh: his past support for gay rights and abortion, among the many issues on which his views have "evolved." Not that he necessarily believes in evolution anymore.

The strategy is to describe past mistakes in one's own terms, before opponents describe them in theirs. Taking responsibility for indiscretions now blunts criticism of them later. The phenomenon is especially pronounced this year among Republicans because one of the party's most powerful constituencies -- evangelical Christians -- has yet to coalesce around a candidate. It may be so desperate for a viable conservative candidate that it's willing to give serious consideration to the likes of Gingrich and Giuliani.

This may be just the beginning, so hunker down and watch for falling baggage. Seldom have so many candidates been prepared to confess so much to so few.

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