A search for GOP's heirs apparent

It's Bush's convention, but many are asking who's next: McCain, Frist, Giuliani, or ... ?

Mike Castle does not want to be president. Period. The affable congressman from Delaware, former two-term governor of same, and president of the moderate Republican Main Street Partnership, had never so much as hinted at a run in 2008. But then, very few of his fellow Republican politicians here for the GOP convention have gone as far as to rule out running, absolutely.

At a convention with no surprises so far and few new faces to introduce to the voting public, a leading topic of late-night party chatter centers on the presidential campaign that will begin on Nov. 3, 2004.

The Republican Party is in a rare state, with no obvious heir apparent to take the reins from President Bush who, win or lose, is in his final campaign. Vice President Dick Cheney, who addresses the convention Wednesday night, has said he won't run in 2008.

"It's as open as I've ever seen it," says Congressman Castle.

Plenty of options

Not that the party is lacking for marquee names, starting with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, who roused Madison Square Garden with energy, humor, and patriotism in his Monday night speech.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, another Republican with national appeal and the other featured speaker Monday night, has also been asked early and often by the news media about his plans. Other GOP names that surface regularly include Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, New York Gov. George Pataki, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, and Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger would be on that list, but his foreign birth disqualifies him from running and it's unlikely the Constitution could be amended in time.

But ask just about any other Republican of stature about 2008, and the answer will be some version of what Mr. Giuliani told CNN Tuesday morning: "I believe we have to remain focused on 2004; we cannot have any other agendas."

A look at Chuck Hagel's prospects

Before the convention, one potential 2008 hopeful did stick his neck out, slightly. On Aug. 13, Senator Hagel - a conservative known for flashes of independence - told reporter Don Walton of the Lincoln [Nebraska] Star-Journal, "I will consider a race for the presidency." Though Hagel insisted he had reached no decision, even to admit that running had crossed his mind raised eyebrows in Nebraska and Washington.

Here in New York, Hagel fulfilled two of the three informal criteria that put any Republican on the "watch list" for 2008: addressing the New Hampshire and Iowa delegations, who represent the two states with the earliest nominating contests, and hosting a party here. Former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat and president of New York City's New School University, invited Hagel to cohost a reception at his New York home on the eve of the convention.

Hagel did not meet the third criterion, an invitation to address the convention itself, which could mean something - or nothing at all - about his relationship with the Republican Party. Hagel did address the 2000 convention, introducing the senator he is most often compared to, John McCain. Like McCain (and Bob Kerrey and Democratic nominee John Kerry), Hagel is a decorated Vietnam War veteran, putting him in that band of Senate brothers whose bond can transcend partisan politics.

How Bush figures in

Undergirding the name game for 2008 lies an important reality: If Bush wins reelection, he and his political team will play a major role in helping steer the party toward a nominee they think can win. Every president views handing the keys to the Oval Office to someone from his party as an important part of his legacy. And Karl Rove, the president's chief political adviser, views ensuring Republican domination for the next generation as part of his mandate.

Many Republicans believe a social moderate, along the lines of a Giuliani or a Pataki, cannot be nominated by the current GOP, whose platform firmly toes the social-conservative line - opposing abortion rights and gay marriage, and limiting stem-cell research. But if Bush wins reelection and can put in place a solidly conservative Supreme Court, the imperatives of the social conservatives may hold less sway, and it's possible that a more moderate Republican could get the nomination, analysts say.

"Giuliani has nationwide appeal on terrorism, but not on social issues," says Peter Feaver, a political scientist at Duke University in North Carolina.

If Bush loses in November, the Republican Party is sure to go through a period of soul-searching over what went wrong, surely igniting debates about the ideology and positioning of the party.

Currently, though, "the irony is the Republican Party is the big-tent party now," says Professor Feaver. "You have a wider diversity of views, maybe not color or demographic background, but on the major hot-button issues. The Democratic Party has pretty successfully purged itself of any thinking that's independent of the party platform."

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