GOP -- Stronger or Broader?

Debra J. Saunders

1/31/2008 12:01:00 AM - Debra J. Saunders

Florida was big. Florida Republicans not only went for John McCain over Mitt Romney, but also, when you add the McCain vote (36 percent) to the now-withdrawn Rudy Giuliani vote (15 percent), you see a shift: A majority of Republican voters are straying outside the ever-pure conservative base. While conservative talk-show hosts and a slice of the GOP base demand all-or-nothing from GOP candidates, Republican voters in general clearly understand that, in a democracy, the all-or-nothing equation has only one sure outcome: You get nothing.

Especially when your party does not represent the majority of voters. In his gracious victory speech Tuesday night, Sen. McCain told Team Romney that "the margin that separated us tonight surely isn't big enough for me to brag about or for you to despair."

Wednesday night's CNN-hosted Republican presidential candidates' debate was more combative. At the heart of it lies a divide on how far a party should go. Asked which type of Supreme Court justices he would nominate, McCain picked two of President Bush's nominees, John Roberts and Sam Alito.

Romney then trumped McCain's mention of Roberts and Alito by adding two more combative conservative picks, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Once again, Romney was conservative squared.

Looking on were Republicans who don't want to lose their iron grip on the GOP. Jon Fleischman, publisher of the influential conservative blog, the Flash Report, told me Romney has to "define this race as a conservative versus a moderate" race. And for Fleischman, only the most conservative conservative wins.

But doesn't Romney have to appeal to centrists? I asked Romney's California campaign Chairman, Tony Strickland, before the debate. Strickland countered that Romney does appeal to voters outside the GOP. "He was governor of Massachusetts, which is not exactly a bastion of conservatism," said Strickland, reciting the Romney mantra that the Mittster would be the best nominee because he has shown he can win in a blue state.

I've heard Romnulans say that before. And it sounds great, if you forget that Romney was elected governor of Massachusetts when he was a pro-abortion, pro-gay rights Republican.

On the McCain side are Republicans who want to expand the GOP by reaching outside the party's base. When he endorsed McCain before the debate, Giuliani praised McCain as a candidate who can help build "a stronger and broader Republican Party" that reaches out to new voters.

From the perch of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library stirs a fond memory: Reagan Democrats. McCain's problem is that his rhetoric has served to inflame some conservatives, who see the Arizona senator as imperious and dismissive of their concerns. They don't like the way he confronted Bush on tax cuts and Iraq troop numbers -- and they especially don't like the way McCain denigrated those who disagreed with his pro-amnesty immigration bill.

That doesn't mean the McCainiacs are pushing him to make nice. Asked if McCain has to make it up to the base, his California campaign Chairman, Bill Jones, answered that McCain has to have a "consistent message."

And: "If you don't have their respect, you don't get their vote." As it is, among a resentful segment of the GOP base, McCain has neither.

In part, the McCain haters resent mostly that McCain can work with Democrats. They would rather lose the election than see him win.

Florida, however, shows that many Republicans have come to understand that when you aren't willing to bend, when you view compromise as disgraceful -- not a necessary part of democracy -- when you insist on all or nothing, then you get nothing.