Michael Gerson

On the verge of the Florida primary next Tuesday and the Super Tuesday votes a week later, Republicans remain fractured and fractious. John McCain is either a war hero and critic of excessive spending -- or Sen. "McAmnesty," the friend of Ted Kennedy and the enemy of American sovereignty. Mike Huckabee is either a witty, well-spoken social conservative -- or an economic "liberal" who will "destroy the party." Mitt Romney is either the consensus choice of conservatives -- or whatever identity benefits him most at the moment. Rudy Giuliani is either a tough-minded hero of Sept. 11 -- or a social liberal with a shady past.

But even amid this ideological discord, there are three words that cause nearly every Republican to forget their differences and join hands in common purpose: President Hillary Clinton.

In some ways, this enthusiastic contempt seems disproportionate. Though Clinton is genuinely radical on some issues -- abortion comes to mind -- her campaign policy agenda represents a chastened, incremental liberalism. Her health-care plan, for example, could be the basis for serious discussions with Republican congressional leaders. Her national security team seems more skilled and experienced than Barack Obama's. And her various positions on Iraq have always been slippery enough to avoid specific, hand-tying commitments on troop withdrawals, leaving her the option of responsibility (though, like the other Democratic candidates, she seems incapable of using the word "victory" in a time of war).

But Clinton has three problems that make her the weakest, most divisive Democrat in the race:

First, she is a living symbol of the culture wars of the 1990s and will rally the Republican base like no other candidate.

It is always easier to remind voters than to instruct them. And it won't take much reminding for Republicans when it comes to Clinton and her high-profile husband. Just a few words and phrases are necessary to evoke an entire era: "I didn't inhale." Kathleen Willey. Whitewater. "Two for the price of one." Polling to select vacation sites. Baking cookies. Joycelyn Elders. Hillarycare. "What the meaning of the word 'is' is." Blue dress. "That woman." Lewinsky, as noun and verb.

For many conservatives -- social, economic and otherwise -- that list is the trumpet call to old battles. Clinton may feel victimized by the "vast right-wing conspiracy" -- but she also recruits it, feeds it and sends it to war.

Second, Clinton is the candidate who most muddles the Democratic message of change.

Michael Gerson

Michael Gerson writes a twice-weekly column for The Post on issues that include politics, global health, development, religion and foreign policy. Michael Gerson is the author of the book "Heroic Conservatism" and a contributor to Newsweek magazine.
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