Win or lose, John McCain might change the face of the party of Lincoln more profoundly than any Republican figure of the past 20 years.
In 1980, Ronald Reagan remade Republicanism by bringing in "Reagan Democrats" - blue-collar social conservatives, many of them Roman Catholic, who felt the nation was adrift.
Now, Mr. McCain may be wooing this group's political children. Wealthier, suburban, more independent, they hold their forebears' flinty belief in honor and hard work.
They're "Crabgrass Jacksonians," in a phrase used by Council on Foreign Relations fellow Walter Russell Mead. Their namesake, President Andrew Jackson, was a Democrat, to be sure. But Old Hickory symbolized an energetic, anti-establishment populism that is rising as the most important swing vote in American politics.
Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, at different times, have drawn Crabgrass Jacksonian votes. So has Bill Clinton. So will the next president - whoever he is.
"The 21st century will be profoundly influenced by the values and concerns of Jacksonian America," writes Mr. Mead in the current issue of The National Interest.
The GOP's need to broaden its base can be easily seen in the results of the past two presidential elections. Neither Bob Dole nor the senior George Bush drew much more than 40 percent of the national vote against a candidate who elbowed them out of the political center.
The magnetic pull of Christian conservatives has increasingly drawn the GOP to the right, just as a core of liberal antiwar activists pulled the Democratic Party to the left in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
In 1972, about 53 percent of Republican voters described themselves as moderate or slightly conservative, according to figures compiled by the University of Michigan's National Election Studies Center. About 29 percent rated themselves conservative.
By 1998, the percentages of moderates and slight conservatives had declined to 37 percent. Self-described conservatives made up 38 percent of the party.
The GOP's choice
As the party has become more conservative, ideological purity on issues such as abortion and tax cuts has become more important in the GOP nomination process. Yet these issues do not sway a majority of voters in a general election, say analysts - particularly in a time of economic contentment.
"Republicans have a real choice to make," says independent pollster John Zogby. "They can go pure this year, and if they do, there are not enough conservatives to win an election."
Thus, by attacking Christian-conservative leaders Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell this week, McCain is attempting both tactical and strategic assaults. On a tactical level, he probably hopes to ingratiate himself with moderate New York State Republicans, who go to the polls in a make-or-break primary March 7. On a strategic level, he is portraying himself as post-ideological, a different kind of Republican candidate.
That was an image George W. Bush was supposed to have to himself. But McCain has elbowed Governor Bush to the right, and Bush has turned to the two wings of the GOP establishment - business and Christian conservatives - to bolster his campaign.
Bush's move may work. Polls show him ahead among Republicans in the crucial state of California. But even if Bush is the nominee, he must make some effort to harness the energy and voters that are attracted to McCain.
"The party has changed. The old establishment has been pretty much worn down," says James Reichley, a Georgetown University scholar of the history of American political parties.
That a struggle over the party's direction has ensued at all can be attributed partly to the change in what parties mean in American political and civic life.
One hundred years ago, parties were practical machines that dispensed jobs and provided an almost geographical sense of identity to their adherents. To live in the South was to be a Democrat, for instance.
Today, parties are less machines and more symbols. To say one is a Democrat or Republican is to advertise certain beliefs, which can change according to national and personal circumstance.
Thus, the electorate is more volatile today than it was 30 years ago, to the point where almost 20 percent voted for an independent in 1992. "There is [party] realignment and dealignment going on at the same time," says Ashley Grosse, director of the National Election Studies Center.
The Republican evolution
Such flux is not new. The Republican Party started as a third party, melding the antislavery wings of the Democrats and the old establishment, the Whigs.
Over time it has changed from a heavily Northern, profederal investment party to the party of small business and the Midwest, to today's Southern and Southwestern conservative GOP.
Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt would still be Republicans today, says Mr. Reichley. But today's party is more antigovernment than their GOPs were.
Andrew Jackson was never a Republican. But the military virtues of Jackson are the same military virtues that many voters say they admire in McCain, whether they agree with his position on issues or not.
The code of the Crabgrass Jacksonian begins with honor, according to Walter Russell Mead. It moves on to self-reliance, and equality among all who pull their own weight. On foreign policy, Crabgrass Jacksonians were once nativists, and they remain hawkish in the defense of perceived US interests.
"That homeowner will be heard from: Ronald Reagan owed much of his popularity and success to his ability to connect with Jacksonian values," writes Mead.
*Staff writer Gail Russell Chaddock contributed to this report.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society