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GOP presidential candidates stick to the playbook

May 15, 2007|Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — For months, top Republicans running for president have been striking the same three notes: They champion small government, a strong military and, in most cases, traditional values.

That formula has propelled GOP victories for a generation. But increasingly, scholars and political strategists are casting doubt on its value in the 2008 race for the White House.

"It looks pretty much like the tattered playbook they've used in the past, and the idea of a bold new direction, I haven't seen any sign of it," said Lawrence Jacobs, director of the University of Minnesota's Center for the Study of Politics and Governance.

Tonight, 10 Republican candidates for president will gather in Columbia, S.C., to debate on Fox News. If their opening debate this month in Simi Valley was any guide, they will talk little of change, relying instead on Reagan-era rhetoric on tax cuts, a muscular foreign policy and personal values in sync with religious conservatives.

Few doubt the merit of that approach in the fight for the Republican nomination.

But the party's White House contestants are also introducing themselves to the nation at large. And with polls showing the public overwhelmingly dissatisfied with America's direction, some GOP strategists worry that the reliance on a tried-and-true message could make what was already shaping up as a tough general-election race even harder.

"It seems to me that some fresh rhetoric and some more provocative proposals would be the order of the day, instead of shopworn cliches that, frankly, have been used for the last 30 years," said Don Sipple, a veteran of GOP politics. "We've got some big issues to deal with in this country."

Launching his White House bid in February, Republican Mitt Romney echoed Republicans of the 1980s. "The best ally of peace is a strong America," said the onetime Massachusetts governor. Americans "are overtaxed, and government is overfed." Values and morals "are under constant attack."

To Stu Spencer, one of Ronald Reagan's top campaign strategists, that timeworn framework -- used by nearly all of Romney's rivals for the nomination -- falls short of what he see as an appetite for change.

"The vast majority is looking for new ideas, new thoughts, new solution, and hope," Spencer said. "Politics is a gamble. You've got to roll the dice."

In a rare break with party orthodoxy, Sen. John McCain of Arizona has given the fight against global warming a prominent place in his campaign. In California, that tactic helped Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger extend his appeal beyond fellow Republicans and win reelection last year in a state that strongly favors Democrats.

McCain -- and more recently, Romney -- have also tried to distance themselves from President Bush by accusing his administration of mismanaging the Iraq war. But they and the other leading candidate in the race, Rudolph W. Giuliani, support Bush's recent troop buildup and oppose efforts to hasten a U.S. military exit from Iraq.

All three have offered policy proposals that largely conform to the party's longtime agenda. Each, for instance, has vowed to expand the military, while holding the line on taxes.

The one glaring break with Republican tradition has involved Giuliani. His positions as New York mayor ran counter to the party's conservative stances on abortion, gun control and gay rights -- a fact that for months he sought to play down. But his waffling on abortion backfired, prompting him to lay out the nuances of his "pro-choice" stand in a speech last week that aimed to calm the controversy.

A big risk for the GOP White House field as it adheres to the party's longtime agenda is that the eventual nominee will make no progress toward wooing independents, a huge swing bloc that sided heavily with Democrats in the November congressional elections and that polls show still strongly disapproves of Bush.

"If you want to stop the bleeding at the center of the electorate, this is not the way to do it, by sort of reiterating the old verities," said Ruy Teixeira, an analyst at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.

Romney holds one tool that he has yet to use: a landmark health insurance overhaul he helped steer into law in Massachusetts. But Romney has mentioned it only in passing, stressing that he opposes "socialized medicine" and favors a "market" approach to solving the nation's healthcare problems.

The dearth of plans by GOP contenders to set the country on a new course looks familiar to William A. Galston, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution think tank. He compared it to Democrats' struggle to define a new agenda after the losing White House bids of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis in the 1980s; Bill Clinton's centrist politics broke the losing streak.

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