Candidates Still Take Cues From Their Base

By Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 16, 2007

Five months after midterm elections that demonstrated the rising power of independent voters, conservative and liberal activists continue to drive the presidential campaign dialogue, deepening the red-blue divisions that have defined national politics for more than a decade.

The huge gulf between the two parties' candidates is most evident on Iraq -- a division reinforced last week by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who excoriated his Democratic rivals on the war. The top Republican contenders uniformly support President Bush's troop buildup strategy; Democrats just as forcefully argue for starting to withdraw U.S. troops and a timetable for eventual removal of virtually all combat forces.

But the war is not the only area in which the candidates are at opposing poles of the debate. On issues such as taxes and spending, health care, and education, candidates are mostly taking their cue from -- or trying to cozy up to -- their respective ideological bases. In doing so, they risk embracing positions that could complicate later efforts to win the support of independent voters, whose votes will be crucial in November 2008.

Right now, that problem appears more acute for Republicans. At this point, polling indicates that independents do not fall at some midpoint between the parties; rather, they are far closer in their views to Democrats than Republicans, particularly on the dominant issue, the Iraq war. Their shift away from Bush was critical in the Democrats' victories in November, and independents give no sign of moving back to the GOP.

Compounding the problem for GOP candidates, the Republican base remains solidly behind the president on the war. On domestic issues such as government spending and immigration, the base is farther to the right than the president. That gives GOP candidates little incentive to carve out an identity clearly separate from the administration.

At the same time, many conservatives have doubts about the party's three leading candidates -- McCain, former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney -- causing all three to look for ways to highlight conservative themes as they campaign.

The Republicans' plight has bolstered the confidence of the Democratic candidates that they can simultaneously appeal to their energized, liberal base and to more moderate independents. But key party strategists warn that the candidates are flirting with problems in the general election if they are not careful, particularly on the war. The intensifying standoff between congressional Democrats and the White House over funding for the war threatens to make that worse.

William A. Galston of the Brookings Institution, a Clinton administration domestic policy adviser and an early opponent of the Iraq war, said his party should note that voters appear just as worried that Democrats would withdraw from Iraq too quickly as they are concerned that Republicans would stay there too long.

"I think it's important to distinguish between the desire to bring this agony to an end and the consequences of bringing it to an end in the wrong way," he said. "I can't prove this, but I believe Democrats will be held responsible if they are seen as advocating a course of action that doesn't take the consequences of failure into account. We cannot afford as a party to be either silent or blithe about the consequences of rapid withdrawal."

It is common in the early stages of a presidential campaign for Democratic candidates to move left and Republicans to go to the right, only to shift back toward the center for the general election. But after midterm elections widely interpreted as signaling at least in part a desire for less polarization, what is most striking along the campaign trail is the disjunction between the messages of the two sides.

Republican and Democratic candidates crisscross in Iowa and New Hampshire, sometimes staging events within blocks of each other, but they speak to different tribes of a still sharply divided nation.

Republicans and Democrats disagree not only about issues, said Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center, but also about the state of the nation. A recent poll asking about people's personal financial situation found that Republicans and Democrats with similar incomes gave sharply different answers. "In the '90s, Republicans and Democrats would differ on things," he said, "but they didn't differ on where we were."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2007 The Washington Post Company