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Defining The First Among Equals

This news analysis was written by U.S. News & World Report columnist Gloria Borger.


Mirror, mirror, on the wall, Who's the fairest one of all?

-The Queen, Snow White

It was supposed to be a rhetorical question. After all, the evil queen was a great beauty and expected to be widely acclaimed as such. But it was not to be. Alas, the suitors for the GOP presidential nomination these days seem to be feeling similarly rejected. They ask: Who's the truest Republican of them all? And the GOP voters simply shrug. There isn't any Snow White, and, more to the point, there's no Ronald Reagan, either.

That, however, does not stop each of the Republican presidential contenders from claiming to be the purest Republican. Mitt Romney unilaterally declares he represents "the Republican wing of the Republican Party." Hogwash, says John McCain, who points out that Romney supported abortion rights (before he changed his mind) and even (gulp) voted for a Democrat once in a presidential primary (home-stater Paul Tsongas). Then the flailing Fred Thompson decides to get in the ring, too. "I was a proud conservative yesterday, I remain one today, and I will be one tomorrow."

Thanks for the clarification. But wait. What is a conservative Republican these days? If that's what the party wants to nominate, then can someone tell me why Rudy Giuliani--who supports abortion rights, gay rights, and gun control--is currently leading in GOP national polls? Sure, he's not ahead by a landslide. He has 27 percent of the vote among registered Republicans, which means that a large majority would like someone else. But Republicans can't decide who that is, and for a very good reason: The party can't decide what it is, either--much less what it wants.

That's not exactly a selling point. Indeed, the GOP suffers from what former George W. Bush speechwriter Pete Wehner calls "intellectual fatigue," and Republicans now look an awful lot like the Democrats after Michael Dukakis lost in 1988. The old GOP formula for success--reform welfare fight crime, lower taxes--seems so 1980s. Lower tax rates were hot when the top rate was 70 percent; welfare reform was a cool idea, but then Bill Clinton actually pulled it off. The mindless invocation of Reagan seems silly now, too. His steadfast small-government principles may be comforting to Republicans thrashing around on the policy front (paying new tribute to less spending), but harking back to an aging game plan won't save the party. There is no (new) beef, just an old side, marinating.

Making peace. As for abortion, it remains a key issue for the Republican base--particularly evangelicals. But if it becomes too dominant in the GOP primaries, watch out. According to a new CNN poll, 77 percent of Americans believe abortion should be legal. And that's another sore matter for Republicans struggling to understand--and cope with--the Giuliani surge. Despite the homage being paid by all the candidates, some evangelical leaders are threatening to bolt and support a third party should Giuliani emerge victorious. Their movement, they say, is more important than any election or political affiliation, and it would come to an end with a pro-choice GOP nominee. Other evangelical leaders say that's wrong and self-defeating and would hand the presidency (and the next Supreme Court appointment) to a Democrat. "I believe we're one vote away [on overturning abortion law]," Gary Bauer, president of American Values, tells me. "It would be tragic to do anything to put that in jeopardy." So could he make peace with Rudy? "I believe that all of the Republican candidates are people I could easily vote for over Hillary Clinton."

That's a non-answer answer. But it's the best he can do as long as the party remains in analysis. After all, it's easier to demonize Hillary Clinton than it is to come up with a new set of ideas. Just ask the Democrats. Running against Bush was all they needed to win control of Congress in the midterm elections. Republicans grose that they've had trouble figuring out how to redefine and rebrand the GOP with an unpopular two-term president in the White House. Their answer: punt, and hope the Democrats make a mess of things.

It's never good to depend entirely on your opponent to win the game for you. And, believe it or not, presidential races are ultimately about ideas. Call me Pollyanna, but it does help to have some. When candidates start trumpeting their labels, it's a giveaway they don't have much else to talk about.

By Gloria Borger