GOP Faithful Get a Preview of 2008 Contenders

Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.), right, joins Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on stage for the opening session of the four-day Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis.
Gov. Mitt Romney (R-Mass.), right, joins Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) on stage for the opening session of the four-day Southern Republican Leadership Conference in Memphis. (By Greg Campbell -- Associated Press)
By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 11, 2006

MEMPHIS, March 10 -- Almost 1,000 days before the elections of 2008, nearly 2,000 Republicans from the South and Midwest have come to Memphis looking for a new president.

Their four-day gathering this weekend is part circus, part rolling cocktail party and part serious business. Half a dozen prospective presidential candidates are scheduled to speak, and many of those candidates are also holding get-acquainted meetings with party leaders.

Beyond that there was a mini-tempest brewing over a media-sponsored straw poll after Arizona Sen. John McCain suggested that delegates backing him instead write in President Bush's name -- a move that appeared aimed at frustrating Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, the home-state favorite.

At a time when Bush is at low ebb, concluding what one top GOP strategist here called the worst week of his presidency, the weekend offered party activists a respite from a season of unhappiness and the opportunity to think about what and who it will take to hold the White House in 2008. The weekend probably will provide some early clues as to how those seeking the presidency will maneuver between loyalty to the incumbent and setting the party on a new course for the post-Bush era.

The gathering comes at a time of growing separation between congressional Republicans and the White House, and of fissures within a party famous for its discipline the past six years. "I think the party is looking for easy, simple solutions at a time when the problems the country faces are harder, more difficult and more complicated to deal with," said Daniel Casse, who was an adviser to Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) when Alexander ran for president.

Most of the major prospective candidates will speak this weekend. Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney helped open the first formal session Friday, drawing his strongest applause by stressing his opposition to same-sex marriage. McCain wrapped up Friday night's session with praise for the president on the port controversy, Iran, Iraq and Social Security, and with tough words aimed at pork-barrel spending in Congress.

On Saturday, delegates will hear from Virginia Sen. George Allen, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Frist, whose team has worked hardest to organize for the straw poll.

Several possible candidates are missing, however, among them former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani, former House speaker Newt Gingrich and New York Gov. George E. Pataki, all of whom were unable to attend. Rep. Tom Tancredo of Colorado, whose anti-immigration speeches have drawn support among conservatives and who has hinted at a possible 2008 campaign, was not invited.

"It's the first time all the candidates will be judged in comparison to others, so they need to be cognizant of people beginning to see this as a choice," Matthew Dowd, who was chief strategist for Bush's 2004 reelection campaign, said in an e-mail message.

New Hampshire Republican National Committeeman Tom Rath, who came for the opening day, said the 2008 race has begun earlier than previous election cycles for several reasons. First, there is no heir apparent to Bush, which makes this one of the most open Republican primaries in decades. Next, with money likely to be more important than ever, candidates need to begin courting Republican donors, few of whom have signaled with their checkbooks which way they are leaning.

Finally, there is the fear of Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), whom many Republicans see as the probable Democratic nominee and no pushover in a general election. "She more than anyone will unite this party," Rath said.

"They're going to be looked at for who can be electable," said Alec Poitevint, the Georgia Republican Party chairman. "We're not going to nominate someone who doesn't believe in genuine Republican philosophy, but there's going to be debate about whether we can win in 2008."

Alexander, whose two White House efforts taught him a few things about the indignities of running for president, offered the candidates fair warning about what to expect from the assembled activists. "The only thing I can compare it to," he said, "is how the prize hogs feel at the Iowa State Fair, with everyone coming by and poking them and prodding them and making unpleasant comments about them."

But the intensity of interest among the delegates showed how eager they are to size up those who want to run in 2008 and how much may be at stake for a party that faces potentially serious losses in the November midterm elections.

The opening hours of the conclave hosted by the Southern Republican Leadership Conference seemed as much vaudeville as serious politics. Alexander played the piano. Romney sang a song to the tune of "Davy Crockett" that poked fun at Frist. And McCain tossed his small grenade into the weekend with gambit aimed at the straw poll that is being organized by the Hotline and the SRLC.

McCain got some support for diminishing the straw poll from Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who urged the delegates to focus on the 2006 midterms and worry later about 2008. But Kay Jennings of Hot Springs, Ark., said she didn't think much of the McCain idea.

"It defeats the purpose of the straw poll, which is to try to find a top runner among all the Republicans who are here," Jennings said. "We've elected our president. He's doing a fine job. But to write him in would be absurd."

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