GOP to Get Early Look at Leading Hopefuls for ’08

Times Staff Writer

With President Bush at a low ebb in popularity, Republicans vying to succeed him are increasingly carving their own identities by distancing themselves from the party’s leader for the last six tumultuous years.

For months, the GOP contenders -- and their Democratic counterparts -- have traveled the country in search of money, support and political IOUs, anticipating the most wide-open presidential nominating fight in decades.

On Thursday, the Republican race will gain new prominence when more than 1,500 GOP activists gather in Memphis, Tenn., for three days of politicking and speeches. A highlight will be appearances by several of the party’s top presidential hopefuls, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, an early front-runner for the Republican nod.


There will also be a straw poll of delegates to the Southern and Midwestern Leadership Conference, which is likely to draw wide notice as a test of strength and a gauge of early voter sentiments -- even if similar straw polls have proved meaningless in the past.

With the president termed out of office, Vice President Dick Cheney expected to retire and Florida Gov. Jeb Bush saying he will not run, there probably will be no one carrying the Bush banner into the 2008 campaign. That, along with increased debate over the president’s policies, is likely to hasten the arrival of a new Republican era.

None of the candidates now showing interest is expected to flatly repudiate the president, or the overall thrust of his policies. Bush remains highly popular among the GOP rank and file, even as his overall poll ratings sag to the lowest level of his presidency. Still, differentiating themselves from the president is a vital step for White House contenders, observers said.

“You’ve got to have some distinctions,” said Ken Khachigian, a longtime Republican strategist, who is not affiliated with any of the 2008 prospects. “Whether Bush leaves office on a big high or leaves in sort of the way he is now, slogging through a lot of battles, it doesn’t matter.... It’s the way the seasons work. A little change is good.”

McCain, who fiercely contested the GOP nomination in 2000, has had a touch-and-go relationship with Bush since, differing on taxes, campaign finance, gay marriage and the use of torture in fighting terrorism.

But since 2004, when he embraced the president, McCain has been more accommodating -- to the point of being a rare defender of the deal to turn the operation of some U.S. ports over to a United Arab Emirates company.


McCain holds a key advantage in the early going, as the best known of the potential candidates and the only one to have run before. The others, seeking a niche, have started distancing themselves not only from Bush but from each other.

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee, also eyeing a possible White House bid, was among the early critics of the port deal. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney also has criticized it, along with the president’s handling of Medicare and the war in Iraq. (Speaking recently on “Fox News Sunday,” Romney said that the U.S. had insufficient troops in Iraq and that the president could have done a better job explaining the reasons for going to war.)

Sen. George Allen of Virginia parted with many fellow Republicans last month over the CIA leak investigation. He called for Special Prosecutor Patrick J. Fitzgerald to investigate Cheney and others if it turned out they authorized the vice president’s former chief of staff, I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, to pass secret information to reporters.

“So much of nominating politics is about picking some differences with your opponents and running with them,” said Scott Reed, a GOP strategist who managed former Sen. Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign. “I think that’s what all the candidates are doing.”

McCain, Frist, Romney and Allen are all set to speak this week in Memphis, along with Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas and Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who are also possible White House contestants.

By throwing most of the major Republican candidates together for the first time before the same audience -- though on different days -- the gathering could offer the best sense yet of the direction the GOP is headed in 2008 and beyond. With no president or vice president running on either side, something that has not happened since 1952, the White House contest is expected to be unusually fluid.


Yet unlike the epic nominating battles of 1964 and 1976, when the Republican Party was torn between its conservative and moderate wings, there are no signs of a major philosophical fight brewing in 2008. All of the major candidates “adhere to the basic tenets of Republicanism,” said party strategist Rich Galen, who defined those as “less government ... less taxes.”

Any differences with Bush, he and others suggested, will be more on the order of course corrections, as opposed to a dramatic directional shift. “Republicans want a guy who will portray what he’s doing as building on the Bush record,” said Grover Norquist, a conservative strategist.

That said, many foresee a vigorous debate within the party over the federal budget and the country’s post-Iraq approach to foreign policy.

Fiscal conservatives have been increasingly restive about the administration’s failure to curb spending. In a recent article in the American Spectator magazine, Norquist pointed out the explosion of spending under Bush, which has gone well beyond the sums devoted to defense and national security.

“By any measure,” Norquist wrote, “government spending has worsened under Republican rule.”

Other party activists echo that complaint, saying the federal government’s expansion in size and scope has aggrieved the party’s base like nothing else.


“At some point,” said David Keene, borrowing Bush’s 2000 slogan, “ ‘compassionate conservatism’ morphed into big-government conservatism.”

And though no GOP candidate is expected to go as far as the Democrats in criticizing the Iraq war -- “you’re not going to get Republicans arguing with a commander in chief of their own party,” Keene said -- there is a debate over the future use of American force and the lessons to be learned from the war.

“Most conservatives have been historically strong defense people, but have been reluctant to embrace the idea that America can dictate the form of government to other states and other peoples,” said Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, who last month presided over a Washington gathering of activists that turned into a gripe session over immigration, spending and so-called nation building.

Another pillar of the party, social conservatives, have just started focusing on the 2008 race, said Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council, a lobbying group. Although largely satisfied with Bush, he said, “I think people see there’s still work to be done” on contentious issues such as gay marriage and immigration, especially ahead of the November election.

“What Congress does in the next six months is going to have a significant impact on the midterm elections, which is going to have a significant impact on the 2008 election in terms of people’s excitement and how engaged they are,” Perkins said.

Because this is an election year -- and the first votes of the nominating fight are two years off -- the sharpest differences among White House hopefuls are likely to stay muzzled for the time being. For now, the contenders are mostly campaigning on behalf of House, Senate and gubernatorial candidates, united in the fight to preserve the GOP’s majority and pick up useful chits along the way.


The outcome of this year’s contests could go a long way toward determining the kind of candidate for whom Republicans are hungering in 2008.

If the GOP keeps control of Congress, the economy is strong and the situation improves in Iraq, that would be one thing, Norquist said. But “if Iraq blows up in our face and Republicans are doing less well,” then party loyalists may be looking for something else entirely.