Only GOP test: Can you win?

Desire to recapture White House quells party divisions on some

The yearning is palpable.

After two lost presidential races and two disappointing congressional elections, the Republicans are ready to win. Really ready.

"There is a very, very strong desire to win," says Whit Ayres, a Republican consultant in Atlanta. "We're tired of losing!"

This fervent desire, echoed throughout the party, has produced a wholly new dynamic in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, compared with the last two cycles. The GOP's hard anti-abortion stance has moved down on the agenda. The party's maverick standard-bearer - the confrontational House Speaker Newt Gingrich - has been replaced by a consensus builder. Words like "compassion" and "inclusion" are filtering into the party lexicon.

For Republican elders, it seems, the only litmus test for a candidate this time around is "winnability" - a know-it-when-you-see-it package of qualities that includes high name recognition; a congenial, even charismatic, personality; the ability to win elections; and perhaps most important, the ability to raise lots of money.

No party 'lock' on presidential election

So far, Mr. Winnability is Texas Gov. George W. Bush, who is long on all of the above and short on the specifics of his program. But for now, in these early days of the 2000 race, voters don't seem to care.

And in party activist circles, there's a growing realization that nothing can be taken for granted anymore in Republican presidential politics - including the old theory that the national electoral map had given the Republican Party a "lock" on the presidency.

"Therefore, they have to pay a lot more attention to winnability," says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont-McKenna College in California and a former Republican staffer in Washington.

"They can't count on some magic electoral lock to guarantee the White House. They have to nominate someone that people will actually want to vote for," Mr. Pitney adds.

This is especially true, he says, for the roughly one-third of the electorate that identifies as independent and is up for grabs.

To some party activists, though, this tactical approach to the 2000 elections has so far produced a primary season disturbingly devoid of dialogue about issues.

"What you're seeing, for the first time, is a primary campaign made up of tactics rather than ideology," says Jay Severin, a New York-based Republican consultant who worked for conservative presidential candidate Pat Buchanan in the 1996 election. "They know they don't want to talk about Kosovo or abortion or race quotas or immigration."

Ideological debates, of course, can be messy. And just as both parties strive mightily to put on political conventions with as little debate and controversy (read: news) as possible, that approach now seems to be trickling backwards into the pre-primary jockeying.

So far, Governor Bush's tactical approach is working: He has maintained a high standing in polls and raised more money than any other Republican in the race, all from his governor's mansion in Austin.

Now the press has begun to delve into what exactly Bush does stand for. He is at times described as Reaganesque - a blend of fiscal and social conservatism - but with a more "communitarian" focus on society and government's role in helping the less fortunate. Others compare him to his father, former President George Bush, calling him a moderate, establishment Republican.

Some Democrats have suggested Bush could blend right into the conservative wing of their party. If he and Vice President Gore do wind up being their parties' nominees, it may well at times be difficult to distinguish between the two men as they both aim for centrist positions on education, Social Security, and the role of government.

He's trying to be a "New Republican," says Mr. Severin, just as Mr. Gore and President Clinton have been affiliated with the centrist New Democrat philosophy.

"He's saying to conservative primary voters, with a wink, 'Trust me. You know I'm really one of you, but if I say that, I will damage myself such that I may not be able to win the general election.'"

Observers of the religious right believe that, in the end, many in the movement would be willing to support a Bush candidacy on grounds of winnability, even if other Republican candidates are more closely aligned with their social-conservative philosophy.

James Guth, an expert on Christian conservatives at Furman University in Greenville, S.C., sees that dynamic at play in his own state. When the Republican governor unexpectedly lost reelection last November, the religious right got a strong reminder that a less-than-ideal Republican is better than a Democrat.

Religious right appeased

"There's a lot of pressure for them to be pragmatic and to look for the strongest candidate," says Professor Guth, noting that most of the state's Republican politicians have already voiced support for a Bush candidacy, including many Christian conservatives.

And in a way, adds Guth, the religious right has already won the war over the party's abortion position: All the Republicans running for president - either fully or still just exploring the possibility, like Bush - say they're pro-life. "The Christian conservatives have got everybody appealing to them in one way or another," he says.

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