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IN SEARCH OF A FRONT-RUNNER

Unifying Message Likely to Produce GOP's Standout

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South Carolina Republicans vote in a primary this Saturday in a presidential contest that is still wide open. We spent a day with GOP voters in Myrtle Beach. Many of them haven¹t settled on a candidate.

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By Michael D. Shear and Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 17, 2008

COLUMBIA, S.C., Jan. 16 -- The three Republicans who have won early-state contests have succeeded in an atmosphere of hyperlocal politics, using personal charisma and energetic retail campaigning to appeal to narrow constituencies.

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But the race turns national after Saturday's primary here, and none of the GOP candidates is showing signs of success in finding broader themes to unite the party ahead of the fall campaign against Democrats.

"Republican candidates have been giving stump speeches, and they need to move to the vision speech," said Alex Vogel, a Republican consultant not affiliated with any presidential campaign. "There is a real concern that all the GOP candidates are speaking to too narrow a slice" of the electorate.

Former Republican Party chairman Ken Mehlman said the party's past successes came when candidates found ways to apply a "core set of principles" to the changing problems of a new generation. "Ronald Reagan and others thought about things like . . . how to apply conservative principles to solve gas lines, Soviet advancement, stagflation," Mehlman said in an interview Wednesday.

He expressed confidence that the wide-open Republican primary is prompting discussion about how conservative ideas can be adapted to solve access to health care, dependence on foreign oil and terrorism concerns. But he acknowledged that, for now, all the thinking appears to be tactical.

"The candidates in both parties have to be concerned about making sure they have a message and a rationale that is broad-based," he said. "The effect of the political process, I hope, will be to encourage that kind of thinking."

So far, it is the Democratic candidates who have campaigned nationally, articulating their differences in broad strokes designed to appeal beyond the borders of any given state. Campaigning in every state with a contest, Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.) talks about the need for change in Washington, whereas Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) emphasizes her experience making change happen.

By contrast, each of the Republicans in the crowded GOP field has struggled to appeal beyond his comfort zone.

Former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee rallied fellow evangelicals in Iowa. Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) out-hustled his rivals with 100 town hall meetings in New Hampshire. And Tuesday, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney offered a native son's sympathy to capture Michigan's economically struggling population.

On Wednesday, McCain and Huckabee campaigned in South Carolina, where they sought to show they can reach beyond those limits.

McCain's campaign organized a news conference with social conservatives to show that he can win more than independents and moderates. Huckabee appeared in front of a lake with Ray Scott, a fishing enthusiast and founder of the Bass Anglers Sportsman Society, and then showed up for a rally in McCain country, at The Citadel in Charleston, S.C.

"Voters are looking for the whole package," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who is backing McCain.


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