Steve Chapman
Moderates, we all hear, are an endangered species. Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., is the latest to be eliminated. Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, announced her retirement in February. Bob Kerrey, a war hero and centrist Democrat who once represented Nebraska in the Senate, is running behind in a comeback bid.

The tea party, by contrast, is flexing its muscles in Indiana, where it helped conservative Richard Mourdock beat the once-invincible Lugar. Rick Santorum, who gave Mitt Romney a strong challenge, is well-positioned for a 2016 bid if Romney loses in November. Voters in North Carolina, which went for Barack Obama in 2008, approved a ban on same-sex marriage and civil unions.

With 40 percent of the electorate, Gallup finds, conservatives now represent the biggest ideological group. Only 35 percent of Americans admit to being moderates.

But the center, contrary to what you might conclude, is not vanishing. In fact, it's not too much to say that this year promises the triumph of moderates.

Start with the presidential campaign. Every four years, Republican voters have the chance to send an uncompromising conservative to the White House -- and every four years, they pass him up for a more pragmatic option.

In 1996, it was Bob Dole, followed in 2000 by George W. Bush, who insisted he was a "compassionate" (read: moderate) conservative. In 2008, John McCain, who spent much of his career offending the right wing, came out on top. This year, Republicans will nominate someone who previously has endorsed gay rights, abortion rights, gun control and a health insurance mandate.

Romney has done his best to reinvent himself as "severely conservative," but he still comes across as an unconvincing impersonator. He's moderate enough that at one point Santorum said that if Romney is the only alternative to Obama, "we might as well stay with what we have."

He had a point: Obama is not that far from Romney. Newt Gingrich is not alone in excoriating him as "the most radical, leftist president in American history," but that's history as hallucination. _

The most surprising fact about Obama's presidency is its continuity with that of his predecessor -- on the auto bailout, the Iraq war, Afghanistan, presidential power and the Troubled Asset Relief Program, to name a few.

His 2009 stimulus package was far smaller than liberals wanted and included a large array of tax cuts. His health care reform incorporated concepts once pushed by Republicans, such as an individual mandate. Bruce Bartlett, an economist who served in the Reagan administration, rates the president "moderately conservative."

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

©Creators Syndicate