For GOP, A Void on The Right

By Robert D. Novak
Thursday, March 1, 2007

New York-based political consultant Kieran Mahoney's survey of probable Republican participants in the 2008 Iowa presidential caucuses showed this support for the "big three" candidates: John McCain, 20.5 percent; Rudy Giuliani, 16.3 percent; Mitt Romney, 3.5 percent. Astonishingly, they all trailed James Gilmore, the former governor of Virginia, who had 31 percent.

How could that be? Because it was not a legitimate survey but a "push poll," normally a clandestine effort to rig the results by telling respondents negative things about some of the candidates. But Mahoney makes no secret that the voters he sampled were told of liberal deviations by McCain, Giuliani and Romney, as well as true-blue conservatism by Gilmore, who is Mahoney's client.

Mahoney is trying to prove a point widely accepted in Republican ranks. None of the three front-line candidates is a natural fit for the nation's right-of-center party. Without question, there is a void. The question is whether Gilmore or anyone else can fill it.

The most commonly mentioned potential void-filler is not Gilmore but Newt Gingrich. A straw poll by the right-wing organization Citizens United of its political contributors showed Gingrich leading with 31 percent (followed by Giuliani at 25 percent, Romney at 10 percent and McCain at 8 percent). But based on his actions as speaker of the House, Gingrich's conservative record is far from flawless.

Mahoney did not include Gingrich in his poll of Iowa Republicans likely to vote in next year's caucuses. His survey first showed McCain leading with 33 percent, followed by Giuliani at 31.5 percent and Romney at 8.8 percent (and the unknown Gilmore at 1.3 percent). Seventy percent of those polled described themselves as conservative, and 68 percent said they were pro-life; they also gave President Bush an astounding 76 percent favorable rating.

The poll-takers then "pushed" -- providing information about the front-runners that could alienate conservatives. McCain was said to have opposed tax cuts, favored "amnesty" for illegal immigrants and opposed a ban on same-sex marriage. Romney: "refused to ban" abortion in Massachusetts, committed to "full equality" for gays and lesbians, put health care in the hands of bureaucrats. Giuliani: supported Democratic Gov. Mario Cuomo's reelection in New York, is pro-gay rights and pro-choice, supports gun control.

That information dropped Giuliani by nine percentage points, to 22.3 percent, and Romney by five points, to 3.8 percent. McCain rose two points, to 35.3 percent. Gilmore remained at 1.3 percent.

Then the pushers described Gilmore as a tax-cutting, jobs-creating governor of Virginia, the head of a congressionally appointed commission on terrorism, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a National Rifle Association member who opposes gun control. With that buildup, Gilmore finished first, well ahead of the field.

That suggests at least the theoretical success of a campaign to knock down the conservative credentials of the big three and build up Gilmore's. "I have the best track record of any of the candidates," Gilmore told me, adding that McCain and Giuliani are "not conservative" while Romney was a "liberal governor of Massachusetts."

With Gilmore a latecomer to the presidential fundraising game, it is doubtful he could find sufficient money to tear down his opponents and build up himself nationally, or even in Iowa. But he will have plenty of help.

At the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), which is attracting right-wingers from across the nation to Washington this weekend, Citizens United will distribute a 23-page attack on McCain. "He's no Ronald Reagan," it begins, and concludes: "John McCain is not a conservative." (McCain is the only announced Republican presidential hopeful not scheduled to speak at CPAC.) Simultaneously, McCain operatives are putting out material that depicts Giuliani riding into City Hall on the shoulders of the New York Liberal Party as a throwback to the old Tammany Hall Democratic machine.

It is hardly too late for such negative campaigning to bring down Republican front-runners because of inadequate conservative credentials. At this point in the 2000 election cycle, Bush was far in front with about 45 percent in the polls, with Elizabeth Dole second at 29 percent. McCain was at a mere 3 percent, behind Dan Quayle and Steve Forbes, before making the run that nearly won the nomination. The GOP race for 2008 may still be open, considering the conservative void.

© 2007 Creators Syndicate Inc.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company