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Candidates Still Take Cues From Their Base
GOP strategists argue that no matter what polls say about the views of independents, their candidates would be foolish to pay too much attention to a general-election audience at this point.
"One of my life experiences in Republican primaries is it's better to win them," McCain pollster Bill McInturff told an audience at Harvard University last month. "So you tend to say what would be required to win the primary first. I've been in primaries where they have looked ahead to the general election; they tended not to be very successful."
Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg said the White House strategy to prevent Republicans from fracturing on the war and other issues during Bush's final two years in office dramatically complicates the election strategies for GOP presidential candidates.
"Republicans have gotten more anti-Democratic and more supportive of the president, making it very hard for elected Republicans to buck him and very hard for presidential candidates to buck him," he said.
Geoffrey Garin, another Democratic pollster, said anti-Bush sentiment among independents makes it far easier for Democratic candidates to maneuver through the nominating process. "It's important for our candidates to remember that there's an event that comes after the nominating process," he said. "But the Republicans are at so much more peril for the general election process in terms of what they have to do to appeal to their base during the primaries and caucuses."
Garin cited two areas in which independents part company with the Democrats' liberal base. One is health care, on which the base is more open to the kind of single-payer system that more moderate voters resist. The other area is Iraq. "Independent voters tend to be substantially more nuanced in their attitudes abut how we should try to resolve the situation in Iraq," he said.
Many Republican strategists concede that the current shape of the electorate and the opposition to the war favors Democrats heading toward 2008. But Ed Goeas, Giuliani's pollster, offered another view. Both Giuliani and McCain, he said, run competitively when matched against either Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.).
The reason? "It's that Republican candidates are doing better with independent voters," he said.
David Winston, a GOP pollster, said he anticipates more creativity on domestic issues as the campaign matures. "Because the discourse has been dominated by Iraq, I don't think you've begun to see these candidates begin to evolve on domestic policy," he said.
McInturff told the Harvard audience that whoever wins the GOP nomination will have to separate himself from the president. White House officials "understand that our next nominee is going to be very different than this administration," he said. "They'll tolerate those views. What they won't tolerate is something that looks like some personal assault on the president."
That may foreshadow potentially significant moves on the part of the Republican candidates in the future, but the 2008 campaign has begun as an extension of the recent past, with the two parties deeply polarized.