A move to push Republicans to the middle

Christine Todd Whitman and others think a moderate stance is GOP's key to survival.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

It was a vision of big-tent Republicanism: At a panel discussion held around the GOP convention last summer, Christine Todd Whitman sat comfortably near Newt Gingrich - a standard-bearer of the middle engaging in measured discourse with a standard-bearer of conservatism.

When asked about the GOP's longstanding drift rightward, Ms. Whitman was polite. The former New Jersey governor and EPA administrator stressed the breadth of the Republican coalition and noted that some of the biggest names to address the convention in prime time - Arnold Schwarzenegger and Rudy Giuliani - favor abortion rights.

Now it's no more Ms. Nice Gal. In her new book, "It's My Party Too," Whitman takes off the gloves and lays down her manifesto to prevent, as she puts it, "the extreme right from run[ning] away with the party."

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"It's time for me to get radical moderate," she says in an interview. "I've been going along to get along, to a degree."

The GOP, she says, has to get back to its core principles of fiscal responsibility, individual freedom, protecting the environment, and US leadership in the world based on strength and wisdom, or it will lose its middle and be relegated to the minority.

"Over the years, more and more people have come up to me and said, look, I've been a good Republican all my life, I don't want to leave the party, but it's getting harder and harder for me to stay," she says with a tone of urgency.

"There's this attitude that if you believe that you can even have discussion about embryonic stem-cell research, you're not a good Republican. If you believe that government has a role to play in environmental protection, you're not a good Republican. If you're prochoice, you're not a good Republican. And that just is nonsensical."

On the face of it, Whitman appears to be arguing with success: President Bush just won reelection and slightly bigger Republican majorities in both houses of Congress. But she's looking at the long term - and sees the rise of what she calls "social fundamentalists" as posing a serious threat to the long-term competitiveness of the GOP, much the way, she says, the Democratic Party was taken over by the far left in the late 1960s and lost five out of the next six presidential elections.

Built into Whitman's flame-throwing is a big irony. With such narrow Republican majorities in Congress, any wing of the party can sink the president's agenda - and so, in fact, the moderates hold great power. The moderate group Republican Main Street Partnership counts 53 House members in its ranks and 12 senators, more than enough to give Bush heartache. The group does not take a position on abortion, but has listed expanded embryonic stem-cell research as its top agenda item. The president and most of his religious-conservative backers oppose expanding federal funding for such research.

The question, then, is just how polite the moderates will continue to be in the 109th Congress. One Republican abortion-rights supporter, Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, barely was allowed to take his spot as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but he did get the seat, and despite promises he made to the White House, has continued to tweak the right with staffing appointments.

Aside from their sheer numbers, moderate Republicans point to key leadership positions their members hold, such as Rep. Jerry Lewis of California, the new chair of the House Appropriations Committee.

The GOP leadership is also not marching in as solid lockstep with the religious right as it might appear. The new party chair, Ken Mehlman, has just named as his cochair a pro-abortion-rights Republican, Joann Davidson of Ohio. However, as Whitman points out, there was such big pushback from social conservatives that, in order to get her approved, President Bush had to intervene and Ms. Davidson had to agree not to appear before abortion-rights fundraising groups.

Still, as much as moderates complain about the power of social conservatives in the GOP, the conservative activists themselves say they still don't have much to show for all their efforts in helping Bush and others win elections. In a recent private letter to presidential adviser Karl Rove, a group of religious conservative leaders expressed disappointment that the president has put Social Security and other economic issues ahead of their goal of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

Gary Bauer, head of the group American Values and a signatory to the letter, denied it was a threat to the president. "It was more of a description of what we think is a political reality, which is that among many of the profamily groups, their base is divided on Social Security," said Mr. Bauer in an interview, explaining that many social conservatives are low and middle income, and nervous about changing the Social Security system.

All of these debates within the Republican coalition point to a core fact: that the most numerous and energetic foot soldiers for getting out the vote in many parts of the country come from the religious right. And therein lies the challenge to groups like the Republican Main Street Partnership (RMSP) and the new effort that Whitman is trying to organize via her book and her website. RMSP points out that in the last election, the group channeled $6 million to moderate Republicans, up from $5,000 in 2000.

Still, the challenge the Republican Party faces is to keep religious conservatives actively engaged without completely alienating the center, analysts say.

"The problem [Whitman] outlines is that the Republican Party without the religious right is a minority party; you're talking about sawing off a good third of the party," says Marshall Wittmann, a former official of the Christian Coalition and now a senior fellow at the Democratic Leadership Council. But, he continues, "the strength of her book is that she ultimately realizes that for her party to win, it has to grasp the vital center, which is largely up for grabs. Both parties face this difficulty."

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