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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)

Fighting back, Romney is increasingly derisive of what he describes as a selling-out of Republican principles. In stump speeches, he mocks McCain for being known for three pieces of legislation -- each of which he famously co-wrote with Democrats: the McCain-Feingold (campaign finance), McCain-Kennedy (immigration) and McCain-Lieberman (energy) bills.

Mentions of the three measures at a Romney rally in California's Orange County on Thursday prompted boos from the crowd.

"Are we going to follow a course where we oppose the Bush tax cuts? Where we are in favor of amnesty for those that come here illegally? Where we are for campaign finance restrictions? And where we are looking for a 50-cent-per-gallon charge on gasoline?" Romney asked the crowd.

Romney is arguing for change and consistency at the same time, a dichotomy that advisers say is easily explainable.

Stuart Stevens, one of Romney's media consultants who switched from McCain's campaign last year, said the change Republicans seek is a renewed ability of the party's leaders to implement fundamentally conservative beliefs. Those include less spending, lower taxes, tough immigration enforcement and market-based economic reforms.

"When the party does well and at its best is when we are able to combine an effectiveness of government, which involves change, with conservative principles that haven't changed," Stevens said.

While both McCain and Romney have pledged to unify and revitalize the GOP, neither has articulated a grand vision akin to the one Ronald Reagan championed in 1980 or the one Bill Clinton outlined in 1992. Instead, McCain and Romney have focused on their experiences and arguments about who is more electable.

"There's now an intellectual void, and a philosophical void. John McCain isn't philosophical, and neither is Mitt Romney," said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the libertarian Hoover Institution. "Romney is running a strategic-positioning campaign, and McCain is running a campaign on his national security experience and, to a large extent, his personality."

Much of McCain's campaign has focused on promoting specific policies and appealing to niche groups that play to his strengths. He has assiduously courted members of the military and veterans. And he has defined his presidential bid as a mission to confront terrorism. "If it wasn't for this challenge, if it wasn't for Iraq, I don't know if I'd be running for president," he said.

"Of course, I know more about national security than any other issue," he told Tim Russert on NBC News's "Meet the Press" late last month, when asked about his economic expertise. "It's been my entire life."

McCain seems distinctly uninterested when asked questions concerning abortion and gay rights. While campaigning in South Carolina, he told reporters riding with him on his bus that he was comfortable pledging to appoint judges who would strictly interpret the Constitution in part because it would reassure conservatives who might otherwise distrust him.

"It's not social issues I care about," he explained.

More than in most previous primaries, Republican voters seem focused less on ideological purity than on a desire to beat the Democratic nominee in the fall. Their year-long dalliance with Giuliani proves that there are many Republicans who are at least willing to put aside hot-button issues such as abortion. The candidates most associated with conservative issues -- such as Rep. Tom Tancredo (Colo.), who made illegal immigration his cause -- hardly registered in the race.

"There's a level of practicality among Republicans I haven't seen in a long time, a focus on winning," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a McCain adviser. "The fact that John . . . is viewed differently by the population from the standard-label Republican is a good thing. How could we possibly win by throwing into the November election someone tied with the label that is obviously not selling with the public at large?"

McCain's advisers assert that the senator is the most likely to capture the White House, by bringing independents back into the party fold while simultaneously reaching out to Latinos with a centrist stance on immigration. "You need to have a Republican who can appeal to the majority of the country," McCain strategist Charlie Black said.

Romney makes a different argument -- that the party is more likely to win over voters if it sticks to its core principles and chooses a nominee from outside Washington who can implement them.

"We haven't failed because we have the wrong ideas," Stevens said Friday. "The way to carry the day is to be the most effectively able to persuade others that our approach is correct."

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