The Bottom Of The Barrel

With the recent defeat of Sen. George Allen (R.-Va.) and the surprising withdrawal of Sen. Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) from the presidential race, the right wing of the Republican Party is running out of candidates for president in 2008.

For the centrists within the party, the likely candidacy of Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and the possible option of former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani offer attractive possibilities, but whom do the conservatives have to put up against them? Surely the GOP is not about to embrace the pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control, pro-affirmative action, pro-immigration Giuliani. (He’s fine with us, but not with the party base.) Nor are they likely to find favor with John McCain, co-sponsor — with Ted Kennedy — of the immigration amnesty bill, supporter of the rights of detainees to avoid “torture,” sponsor — with Joe Lieberman — of the anti-global warming initiative, and the original framer of campaign finance reform. Conservatives are also likely to hold his membership in the so-called “gang of fourteen” against him. Back in 2005, he joined six other Republicans and seven Democrats in backing confirmation of moderate judges without a filibuster. Trusting such a person with co  ntrol over judicial appointments may be a nonstarter on the right. (Again, we’re OK with all this, but you don’t win in South Carolina with these positions.)

So whom does the right have to put up?

The current conservative front-runner is soon-to-be former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. But Romney’s social positions aren’t likely to appeal to mainstream conservatives. During his 2002 race for governor, Romney said that while he personally opposed abortion, he “would protect the current pro-choice status quo in Massachusetts. No law would change. The choice to have an abortion is a deeply personal one. Women should be free to choose based on their own beliefs, not the government’s.” He said he would “preserve and protect a woman’s right to choose.” Ted Kennedy couldn’t have said it better himself.

Romney said, in a 1994 television debate against Kennedy (he ran for the Senate that year against Teddy), that he changed his pro-life stand after, “A dear, close family relative…passed away from an illegal abortion…Since that time, I have been committed to the belief that…we will not force our [pro-life] beliefs on others. You will not see me wavering on that.”

Wavering? No. But out right reversing, yes. Romney seems to be a chameleon who adjusts his positions to suit the need of his environment. When he was running in a liberal state against the most liberal member of the Senate, he talked liberal. But now that he wants to win a Republican primary with a conservative base, he speaks their language.

Now, he says that his views on abortion have “evolved and changed” since he sought election in the most liberal state in the nation and he now considers himself pro-life.

But on abortion, the only thing liberals and conservatives agree on is that they can’t stand those who would flip-flop on this moral issue, adjusting not only to the political winds but also to the geographic area in which they are running at the moment. Since Romney has flip-flop-flipped, going from pro-life to pro-choice to pro-life, he is unlikely to gain traction on the right.

So whom does that leave?

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says he will come into the race by September of 2007 if “nobody else has caught fire.” But Gingrich may find that his own past makes him a hard pill for the Christian right to swallow. And clearly, he subordinated the moral agenda of the conservatives to his budget-balancing, tax-cutting economic priorities when he was Speaker. Again, fine with us, but not with the base.

Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is looking more and more attractive given the paucity of the field. He is eloquent, outspoken, and has shown a record of great creativity in his state. Not only is he hard-line on the social issues — as a former Baptist minister and president of the Southern Baptist Convention — but his policies on health care and nutrition mark him as a compassionate Christian conservative as well. His state is a defect and he’s the world’s worst fundraiser, but the right could seek him out. He’s lost 100 pounds, so he really must want the job. (Note: He’s a former client.)

Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback is another possibility, but he lacks Huckabee’s background, passion, and stage presence.

Or there could be someone else. But, at this stage, the Republican right is scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Eileen McGann co-authored this column.