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Splintered GOP Seeks Unifying Presence
"I'm homeless," said Jack Kemp, a former congressman and housing secretary in President George H.W. Bush's administration and the party's vice presidential nominee in 1996. "There isn't that Reagan sense of optimism, of an inclusionary Republican Party."
"It's about as clear as mud," said Rep. Patrick T. McHenry (R-N.C.), who has talked to Giuliani and has met with Romney and former senator Fred D. Thompson (Tenn.) but remains undecided.
For conservatives, the flaws of each major candidate are just too glaring, GOP lawmakers say.
Giuliani tends to win them on economic issues, but they cannot get by his stand on social issues. They like Huckabee on the social agenda, but do not trust his economic stands. They like the Romney they see now, but they cannot forget the positions he once embraced in Massachusetts. And they dislike McCain's opposition to Bush's first-term tax cuts and his crusade to overhaul campaign finance laws.
"Everybody's looking for Ronald Reagan, and believe me, I knew Ronald Reagan, and he's not here," said Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), who dropped out of the race for the White House on Thursday and gave his support to Romney. "We're seeing the manifestation of frustrations that have been in the Republican ranks for years. Frustration with the president, frustration with Congress, and nobody sees in us a way out."
Huckabee, in particular, is challenging the three-part coalition that Reagan built, but not only because of the unabashed focus on the former Arkansas governor's Christian faith. He is increasingly casting himself as the champion of "the people" against what he calls the "Wall Street-Washington axis." He said this past week that he wants to represent "Boys and Girls Clubs Republicans" not "country-club Republicans."
Many of those Republicans, the types of political professionals who really care about elections because of their impact on commercial prospects, are well aware that their fellow Republicans are not happy with the presidential field.
"I've heard that all year. I've heard it particularly inside the Beltway," said Charles R. Black Jr., a volunteer adviser to McCain's campaign and chairman of the BKSH & Associates lobbying firm. "It's definitely a phenomenon that's out there."
But Black said a lot of that talk is pointless alarmism. "You get to Iowa and New Hampshire," he said. "[People] want an ideal candidate, but there aren't any. I remember Democrats wringing their hands in '92, and look what happened: They got the most popular president in a generation."
For years, the party's nominating contests began in the once reliably Republican states of New Hampshire and Iowa.
But Iowa Republicans failed to regain the governorship, watching Democrat Chet Culver defeat Jim Nussle, who gave up a safe House seat to make a losing race for governor. And, for the first time in 40 years, Republicans lost the majority in the legislature and saw highly regarded Rep. Jim Leach lose his position.
In New Hampshire, it was worse. The Republican candidate for governor drew 26 percent of the vote against Democratic incumbent John Lynch, and straight-ticket voting doomed Republicans up and down the ballot. On a single day, the GOP went from being the dominant party in the state to a bare remnant.