Splintered GOP Seeks Unifying Presence

By Michael D. Shear and David S. Broder
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, December 23, 2007

DES MOINES -- For three decades, the Republican presidential nominating contest has served to unify the national party's coalition of social, economic and foreign policy conservatives in advance of a general election fight with Democrats.

This year, it is ripping that coalition apart.

Is the GOP grounded in the social issues embodied by Baptist preacher Mike Huckabee or the foreign policy experience of former POW John McCain? Do Republicans see their futures in a former CEO such as Mitt Romney, who promises to tackle Washington incompetence, or in a leader such as Rudolph W. Giuliani, who talks tough on terrorism and crime? Should the party embrace anger about immigration or optimism about America's potential?

Among members of Congress, the lobbying shops on K Street and the local GOP committees in Iowa and New Hampshire, Republicans are divided, confused and sometimes demoralized about their choices for president. With less than two weeks left before voting begins, the party's rank and file are being asked to ratify a new direction for the GOP amid the clash of a chaotic and wide-open campaign.

And the party's soul-searching is unfolding in a sour environment: two states where the GOP was walloped by Democrats in 2006, leaving the surviving Republicans in Iowa and New Hampshire grappling with an identity crisis of their own. In dozens of interviews last week, many Republicans said they are frustrated.

Scott Weiser, who lobbies the Iowa statehouse for the Iowa Motor Truck Association, said he attended a Republican fundraiser recently where all but one of the lobbyists and business executives were still undecided about who they will support in the presidential contest.

"We walked around the room, and there was just one guy who was committed to someone," said Weiser, who joked that he might go to one of Iowa's top steakhouses rather than attend the Jan. 3 caucuses. "I have never, ever seen anything like this where at least the pros didn't know who they were with."

In New Hampshire, where Republicans took a hit in 2006, GOP state Rep. Fran Wendelboe said she is still looking for someone to support. She is devoting her energy to a local organization -- dubbed the "Reagan Network" -- meant to be an alternative to the state Republican Party, which she and her allies argue has let the party's grass roots wither.

"One day, I'm going to vote for one person, and the next day, I'm going to vote for another person," she explained. "And if that's what it's like for a Republican like me -- who's met all these guys, who's done all the research on these guys -- imagine what the average person is going through.

"Republicans," Wendelboe said, "are all over the place. They're looking for the perfect candidate but just don't have it."

Soul-searching during a presidential campaign is typical for the Democratic Party, which seems to engage in philosophical rethinking every four years. But it is a rarer instance for Republicans, who typically rally around an establishment candidate, a consensus "next-in-line" who would be a shoo-in for the nomination.

That kind of party discipline helped George H.W. Bush win the nomination in 1988, gave a boost to former Kansas senator Robert J. Dole in 1996 and was crucial to George W. Bush's victory in 2000. But finding a successor to President Bush, and a new direction for the party, is proving to be more difficult.

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