Fasten your seat belts for a political bumper-car ride. The Bush-McCain contest in the South Carolina GOP primary will be full of rhetorical lunges and swerves, largely over this charged question: What is a conservative?
John McCain's insurgent victory in New Hampshire has rattled Republicans, forcing them to look again at basic principles and not just at winning the White House.
Either man could take the Feb. 19 primary by force of more superficial advantages, such as personality, money, organization, "electability" against a Democrat, or single-issue stands, such as on abortion, tobacco, or guns.
But fundamental issues are now at work with McCain's challenge, possibly turning the primary into a crystallizing moment for all conservatives.
McCain's "crusade" put a hole in the well-rooted candidacy of George W. Bush. The Texas governor has the backing of dozens of GOP leaders. He has good advisers, well-honed policies, and a family legacy. He's the very model of a modern, major political machine.
Perhaps voters find McCain popular just because he's challenged the GOP establishment, which now seems run by lobbyists, corporate money, and narrow-issue activists, especially the religious right. He may not be the man to fix it, but McCain at least is a useful alarm clock for the party.
The conservative movement that Ronald Reagan helped build has since splintered, following the fall of Newt Gingrich and the GOP's attempt to shut down government in 1995.
Despite a moment of unity over President Clinton's impeachment, the GOP has yet to recover from a "New Democrat" president who moved his party onto the conservative turf of balanced budgets and welfare reform.
Both Bush and McCain can now use these primaries - not to attack each other - but to redefine GOP principles.
Bush made a start with his call for "compassionate conservatism." That would put the party back into the Teddy Roosevelt style of finding a progressive role for government. But he faltered in proposing a large tax cut that only plays to self-interest rather than prudent accounting.
The GOP doesn't have a lock on patriotism and citizenship, but McCain has revived these conservative virtues, by both his sacrifice and honor in Vietnam and his fight against corporate money in campaigns. Still he hasn't clearly defined whether patriotism means an America-first foreign policy. And does active citizenship allow the religious right to fight for nonsecular causes?
The GOP's role in a presidential contest is to pitch its conservative strong points, and hope voters buy them. Now that we have a real contest in the Republican primaries, the party can get to work to do just that.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society