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Sarah Palin endorsements help push GOP farther from the center

Thursday, August 12, 2010; A14

THANKS TO Sarah Palin, Brian Murphy is having his 15 minutes of fame. Before last week, when Ms. Palin endorsed him without the benefit of a meeting or conversation, Mr. Murphy, a 33-year-old former commodities trader, was an obscure long shot seeking the Republican gubernatorial nomination in Maryland. How obscure? Well, his most prominent supporters pre-Palin included the sheriff of Frederick County and a widely disparaged former state GOP chairman who was ousted for his anemic fundraising record.

We don't mean to pick on Mr. Murphy, who seems like a pleasant fellow. A business school graduate, he is a fiscal conservative who styles himself ideologically after the late Jack Kemp. In addition to pursuing a somewhat quixotic investment venture in a money-losing Eastern Shore bakery, he has also devoted time to working with underprivileged children.

Still, the particulars of Mr. Murphy's background are not the most interesting aspect of this tale. In fact, the endorsement reveals much more about Ms. Palin than about Mr. Murphy.

It shows, first of all, that the former Republican vice presidential nominee does not really care much about winning. After all, Mr. Murphy stands virtually zero chance of stealing the Republican nomination away from former governor Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who maintained relatively high approval ratings statewide even as he was defeated in his bid for reelection four years ago. Maryland is one of the most liberal states in the nation; if any Republican stands a chance at winning statewide office, it will be a moderate like Mr. Ehrlich, not a conservative like Mr. Murphy.

It also suggests that Ms. Palin's political worldview, if you can call it that, consists mainly of a short checklist of slogan-ready, litmus-test issues on which Mr. Murphy ranks higher in the conservative canon than Mr. Ehrlich does. Opposed to raising taxes? Check! In favor of Second Amendment gun rights? Check! Opposed to abortion? Check! Dislike illegal immigrants? Check!

To the extent that Republicans follow Ms. Palin down this path, they will find it leads to a very snug tent, just big enough for the hard-core partisans who refuse to deviate from checklist politics for the sake of character, pragmatism or victory. You could call that principled. You could also call it a political strategy so narrow that it amounts to self-marginalization.

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