Contenders Highlight GOP's Ideological Struggle

Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, right, talks about the race for the GOP presidential nomination as a battle "for which way the Republican Party is going to head."
Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, right, talks about the race for the GOP presidential nomination as a battle "for which way the Republican Party is going to head." (By Joe Raedle -- Getty Images)
By Juliet Eilperin and Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 3, 2008

CHICAGO -- In the final days before Tuesday's coast-to-coast presidential voting, the two leading candidates for the Republican presidential nomination are laying bare the ideological struggle inside their party over shaping a post-George W. Bush era.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) offers rock-solid fealty to President Bush's Iraq war policy but more than hints at creating a new spirit of cooperation with Democrats on global warming, health-care policy, illegal immigration, ethics and lobbying regulations.

By contrast, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney pledges to change a "broken" Washington but provides little evidence that he would alter the course of Republican ideology, which traces its roots to Ronald Reagan and extends to the current presidency.

"I guess I think there's going to be a real battle here for which way the Republican Party is going to head," Romney told reporters as he campaigned in Southern California. Speaking later to supporters at a rally, he raised the question again: "What's the direction for the Republican Party?"

The answer to that question is likely to come on Tuesday, when millions of Republican voters confront the choices that a chaotic, year-long primary campaign has left them: A Cold War-era soldier with little regard for partisanship vs. a business chief executive and reformed moderate who has embraced the conservative agenda.

Polls suggest that party voters are more likely to choose McCain, who leads by a wide margin in national polls and has a convincing advantage in many of the biggest Feb. 5 states. A series of major endorsements -- including those from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani -- provides the senator an unmistakable sense of momentum.

McCain and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee campaigned in the South on Saturday. McCain barnstormed through Tennessee, Alabama and Georgia, while Huckabee spent the day in Alabama.

Romney traveled to Salt Lake City to attend the funeral of the president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Gordon B. Hinckley, who died last week. Afterward, Romney campaigned in Minnesota. In Nashville, McCain sought support from fans of former senator Fred D. Thompson of Tennessee, who dropped out of the race last month and has not endorsed a GOP candidate. All three contenders are scheduled to hold several events on Super Bowl Sunday. McCain will be in the Northeast, Romney in the Midwest and Huckabee in Georgia.

As McCain's political fortunes have improved in recent weeks, he has spoken more frequently about where he hopes to take the party. After being endorsed Thursday by Schwarzenegger, McCain told reporters that he intends to bring together the GOP's conservative and moderate wings.

"I am prepared to lead this party and this country," he said. "A big-tent party, the party of Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan."

And though conservative talk-show hosts have relentlessly attacked McCain over his stance on climate change, campaign finance and immigration, campaign manager Rick Davis told reporters the morning after McCain's Florida victory that the campaign will continue to woo everyone from Rush Limbaugh to GOP moderates.

"It's really important that we keep the hand outstretched to every facet of the Republican Party," Davis said, "whether it's Rush or even people on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum."

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company