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Republicans Start the 2008 Political Dance

Times Staff Writer

More of the same, only different.

That was the mixed message offered by Republicans who want to succeed President Bush, as they gathered over a three-day weekend here for the first White House audition of the 2008 campaign.

For the most part, the hopefuls stayed true to their beleaguered president as each tried to present himself as Bush’s most worthy successor. It was no easy task.

With one breath, candidates praised Bush: “Thank heavens the president recognizes the greatest ally peace has on this planet is a strong United States,” said Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. With another, they condemned the status quo: “We are spending too much money,” Romney said, citing the rise of federal spending under Bush and the GOP Congress.

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The session in Memphis, cradle of the blues and a birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll, had its share of discordant notes. Onstage and off, GOP leaders differed over the political climate facing Republicans, their responsibility for voters’ sour mood, and whether the gathering should focus on the 2006 elections or the presidential contest almost 1,000 days away.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said it was hogwash to ignore the early stirrings of campaign 2008. “You guys don’t believe it, and none of us do either,” the candidate told a scrum of reporters ringed around him. “So why not tell the truth?”

The sextet of White House contestants present -- all officially undeclared -- mostly echoed one another as they sounded conservative themes that go back decades. They called for lower taxes, more fiscal discipline, a smaller and less intrusive federal government, a tougher stance against abortion, restraints on activist judges, and a military second to none.

Yet, with Ronald Reagan invoked at least as frequently as the current president, at times it seemed the last five years under Bush and a Republican-led Congress had never happened.

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Over and over, the candidates and party leaders criticized “the wayward path of wasteful Washington spending,” as Tennessee’s Bill Frist, the Senate Republican leader, put it. Left unstated was the fact that Bush had never vetoed one of Congress’ spending bills, all of which were approved by GOP majorities.

More than 1,000 Republican activists from two dozen states gathered for the festival of speeches at the famed Peabody Hotel. The event was capped by a straw poll won by Frist, who ferried in busloads of supporters to ensure he came out on top in his home state.

They witnessed rehearsals for the same delicate dance performed by others in recent years, to mixed results. Vice President Al Gore never managed the footwork in his tangled relationship with President Clinton, and lost. Bush’s father promised just enough change from President Reagan and won.

It may be even trickier for these candidates. Bush and Gore both ran in favorable political climates -- a far cry from what Republicans, at this early point, look to inherit.

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Bush has been widely criticized for the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. Americans have turned against the war in Iraq. Bush’s approval ratings have sunk to their lowest level.

As the party faithful arrived in Memphis, the local congressman, Democrat Harold E. Ford Jr., was airing a TV ad attacking the Bush-backed ports deal that involved a United Arab Emirates firm. Ford is running to succeed the retiring Frist in the Senate, and his commercial invoked the Taliban and Sept. 11 attacks, complete with mug shots of two hijackers -- turnabout from the spots used against Democrats in prior elections.

Yet with Bush still admired by the party’s conservative base, this was not the place for Republicans to badmouth him. When Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, introducing Frist, praised Bush as “one of the great presidents in the history of the United States,” the party faithful rose to their feet and cheered.

Some even applauded when Sen. John McCain of Arizona defended the ports deal.

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Most of the criticism of Bush came by implication. There were several calls -- all met with shouts of approval -- for a crackdown on illegal immigration.

“Securing our borders is the first principle of immigration reform,” Sen. George Allen of Virginia said. “The second principle is you do not reward illegal behavior with amnesty,” he added, referring to Bush’s proposed guest-worker program.

Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas virtually ignored the topic of Bush as he laid out his vision as “a Ronald Reagan Republican.”

The mood of the official program veered from cheerleading -- one speaker invoked the Rev. Norman Vincent Peale, the prophet of positive thinking -- to more sober analyses of the troubles facing Republicans.

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For his part, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina told reporters that Bush and Republicans had brought many of their problems upon themselves -- the president through poor execution of his policies, the members of Congress by “going native” in Washington.

“We’re growing the government at a pace that makes the Democrats look thrifty,” said Graham, who is backing McCain for president. He suggested lawmakers should apologize to voters, then get back on the offensive. “We’re a party in fear right now,” Graham said, adding later, “We need to be a party focused on winning.”

Huckabee demurred. “Attitude determines altitude,” he said of Graham’s comments. “If we think we’re in trouble, we’re in trouble. I don’t think we are.”


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