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GOP base scatters to rival camps

No one has been able to assemble a coalition, as Reagan did. The breach, evident in Iowa, could hobble the nominee.

January 02, 2008|Janet Hook and Michael Finnegan | Times Staff Writers

DES MOINES — The long-standing coalition of social, economic and national security conservatives that elevated the Republican Party to political dominance has become so splintered by the presidential primary campaign that some party leaders fear a protracted nomination fight that could hobble the eventual nominee.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney aspires to build a conservative coalition in the mold of Ronald Reagan, but his past support of abortion rights gives many social conservatives pause. Mike Huckabee, a Southern Baptist minister, is a purist on social issues but has angered economic conservatives because he raised taxes while he was governor of Arkansas.

Former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and Sen. John McCain of Arizona have tough-guy images and hawkish records, but many Republicans are wary of them because of their immigration and other policies.

The breach within the party was evident here Tuesday, two days before Iowa holds the first nominating contests of the presidential race, as Huckabee and Romney each sought to show he could reach across the conservative spectrum and unite Republicans, as did Reagan and George W. Bush in prior elections.

Huckabee, responding to attacks on his credentials as a fiscal conservative, unveiled a new television ad saying that as Arkansas governor he had signed the state's first broad-based tax cut in 160 years.

Romney, who has tried to persuade voters that his business background makes him best suited to handle the economy, sought to shore up his image among social conservatives by talking about his support of family values. Campaigning with the youngest of his five grown sons, Craig, Romney visited homes in several communities and told the invited guests that Americans were patriotic, God-fearing people who wanted "leaders who will tell us the truth."

The contrasts in their appeals -- the businessman targeting the Christian right, the former preacher targeting the fiscal conservatives -- starkly illustrated how the Republican Party's core constituencies have scattered among rival camps. The net effect has been a fractured field with no clear front-runner.

Recent polls show Huckabee and Romney in a tight race in Iowa but Huckabee trailing badly in New Hampshire, where McCain has been Romney's chief rival. Nationally, Giuliani remains among the top draws but is no longer the clear front-runner. Former Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, who at one point was doing well in national surveys, now draws diminished support.

"None of our candidates seem to have caught on," said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse. "You have the whack-a-mole Republican primary: As soon as one rises up, the others knock them down."

That instability has fueled fears that if a winner does not quickly emerge in a primary calendar loaded with contests in January and early February, a prolonged primary fight could delay the GOP's focus on election day in a campaign in which Democratic voters already have contributed more money and, according to several polls, expressed greater satisfaction with their choice of presidential contenders.

"I'm concerned the Democrats will settle on their nominee fairly soon and Republicans will take longer beating each other up," said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. "It gives another advantage to the Democrats in a year in which they already enjoy significant advantages."

History is not on the side of a party that takes a long time to winnow its field to one candidate. In almost every presidential campaign over the last generation, the party that settled on its nominee first won the general election, said Rhodes Cook, an expert on presidential campaigns.

"If the nominating process is going on for a while, it shows the nominee is having some problem pulling his base together," Cook said. "That does not bode well for the general election."

For Republicans, the party's coalition of business interests, religious conservatives and defense hawks has been its foundation since Reagan captured the GOP nod in 1980. Bush also rode that coalition to power 20 years later, harnessing the fundraising power of business to the grass-roots energy of social conservative activists.

Republicans remain hopeful that, once their nominee is chosen, the coalition will reassemble behind him -- as it did in 1988, when Bush's father had to contend with primary challenges from evangelical leader Pat Robertson, propelled by social conservatives, and former Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.), the darling of the party's supply-side-economics wing.

But the 2008 nominee may face a stiff challenge in bridging the fault lines that the fractured Republican field have exposed. For many GOP voters, some of the candidates are simply unacceptable.

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