Competent Conservatism

Republican presidential hopefuls from left, Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, former Sen. Fred Thompson, R-Tenn., Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. and Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif. gather prior to a Republican presidential debate in Orlando, Fla., Sunday, Oct. 21, 2007. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
AP
This column was written by Bob Moser.

While the blogosphere and the mainstream pundits obsessed in unison -- and don't they always obsess in unison? -- over the increasingly irrelevant bleatings of the Christian Right sheep at this weekend's Values Voter Summit in Washington, more than twice as many Republicans were gathered in steamy Orlando, Florida, for their "Presidency IV" weekend. These were the people who just might, along with their strikingly similar counterparts in Colorado and Virginia and Missouri and Ohio, determine what happens in November 2008. And they are not the Republicans of 2004. The swarm of business-casual Republicans in Orlando looked like the future of their party -- a future that will almost surely swing the GOP back toward the past, in the moderately conservative, business-first, ignore-the-wackos direction of Eisenhower, Rockefeller and Ford.

The crowd here was short on fundamentalists and long on nattily dressed, well-behaved, martini-sipping corporate Republicans -- predominantly white ones, of course, but with more sizable black and Hispanic contingents than any other state's Republican Party can boast (so far). It's 1956 all over again. The "business end" of the Republican Party has been strongly on the ascent in Florida, after years of embarrassing right-wing excesses from Jeb Bush and the right-wing Christian loonies who briefly took over the state legislature. These unseemly embarrassments have been shoved out of power as the relatively moderate and wildly popular Governor Charlie Crist and his cohorts have taken command, elbowing the Katharine Harrises of Florida quietly and decisively back to the margins of the GOP where they once belonged. Left behind, if you will.

Too many Democrats are clinging to the sunny notion that they will get to run against the Party of Bush again in 2008 -- this time, with Bushism thoroughly discredited in the mainstream. Under that scenario, a stable, robotic, small-ball centrist like Hillary Clinton looks like a sure winner. What the sanguine Dems are ignoring is that Bushism and neo-conservative ideology are also being hastily discarded by rank-and-file Republicans and their emerging leadership, especially at the state levels. Crist's mantra is "problem-solving, not politics," and it is a philosophy that has risen rapidly to preeminence here -- and sounds a whole lot like Hillary's own idea of governance. The only reference to Bush -- Jeb or George W -- that I heard all weekend was from a South Florida nurse I ran into at the Black Republicans' cocktail hour. "Oh Lord," she said, with genuine relief, taking a swig of white wine. "Thank goodness that's over."

Like most of the Republicans I chatted with, what she's looking for this year is -- above all -- a non-Bushian level of competence. It's that mantle, above all, that the Republican candidates are competing for in states like Florida. And in their vastly different ways, Rudy Giuliani, Mitt Romney and the vastly underrated Mike Huckabee -- the only real contenders now -- have some appeal to these folks on that crucial score. And judging by that same test, the big loser of the weekend was that former great white hope of "common-sense conservatism," Ol' Fred Thompson. His campaign has been an uproarious farce from the get-go, but this weekend in Florida, he just might have managed to shoot himself -- and any chance he might have had of becoming President -- in the foot, once and for all. Thompson's strategy hinged on winning South Carolina and Florida. After this weekend, he'd better make a beeline for Charleston and stay there awhile.

While the Fox News debate on Sunday night provoked a fun but largely pointless knife-fight over who was the "real Republican" in the race -- i.e., the one most closely resembling the Ronald Reagan of myth -- the most telling and important moments of the weekend happened out of camera view, at Saturday afternoon's "presidential rally." While Huckabee was wowing 'em at the Values summit -- finally capturing the constituency that should have been his from the start -- the four more well-heeled candidates who'd coughed up the $100,000 fee demanded by the Florida Republicans for full participation in the weekend's festivities held forth in a massive, high-ceilinged ballroom fitted out convention-style, with big placards for each Florida county and thousands of cheering delegates. Giuliani dazzled the crowd with a speech that was authoritative (no surprise there!), but also impressively substantive and chock-full of applause lines that were delivered with a mastery honed by hundreds of inspirational talks on the You Can Be a Millionaire speaking circuit.

While there was some grumbling about his constant references to his hometown -- "I'm so sick of New York I could scream!" one woman told me afterward -- he was mostly spot-on for this audience, by turns stoking their cheers and their fears. Romney, surrounded by his handsomer-than-the-Brady Bunch wife and children, pleasantly surprised the folks by telling jokes and appearing vaguely human. John McCain, just as he did during Sunday's debate, appeared to be taking the same medications as Al Gore during his "Aren't I Nice?" second debate with George W. Bush in 2000.