In this campaign, the opposite seems to be the case. “This year, it seems to me, the party is the sun and the candidates are the planets. . . . They are trying to prove to primary voters that they are reliable and trustworthy when it comes to the basic platform of the GOP,” said Pete Wehner, a Republican strategist and former Bush administration adviser.
Republicans have a real opportunity to unseat the president in November, given the state of the economy and public dissatisfaction with some of his policies. President Obama’s standing is as fragile as that of any incumbent seeking reelection in two decades.
But Republicans could see their opening slip away if the nominee is bound too tightly to an unpopular congressional wing of the party that has become the face of the GOP over the past 12 months. The Economist magazine recently summed up the Republican dilemma, saying that at a time when many independent voters may be looking for a solid center-right platform, the Republican Party “is saddling its candidate with a set of ideas that are cranky, extreme and backward-looking.”
One reason the candidates have been reluctant to chart new philosophical ground is that Republicans are as ideologically united as they’ve been in many years. They are also more conservative than they were even in Reagan’s day, thanks to an infusion of energy and ideas from the tea party movement.
That has put a strong gravitational pull on the presidential candidates. None of them, with the exception of Rep. Ron Paul (Tex.), have shown any inclination to break with party orthodoxy or to put distance between themselves and their congressional colleagues.
Democrats see the Republican candidates as compliant to the tea party wing of the GOP.
“This is a party that is very much defined by the tea party element, and the candidates have submitted to that,” said Democratic pollster Geoff Garin. “That’s their destiny, and they’re going to have to live with it.”
A Republican strategist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the election, agreed.
“What Obama needs to do now is force the Republican nominee into supporting the tea party wing of the party over the next nine months,” he said. “Can you tie the nominee to the congressional Republicans? If he can do that, now you’re talking about a real problem.”