Oct. 3 (Bloomberg) -- One of the few political pleasures for President Barack Obama’s re-election team these days is watching the Republican primary fight.
Driven by a hardcore conservative base, and right-wing audiences at debates, Republicans risk accentuating the public’s perception that the party is too extreme.
On issues ranging from taxes to Medicare and Social Security and immigration, the rhetoric often is directed at placating conservatives. What may prove helpful in primaries and caucuses could come back to haunt in the general election.
President Richard Nixon used to say that the key to U.S. politics was to appeal to the base in the primaries and move to the center in the general elections. That’s difficult if the nomination contests swing too far.
Obama and the Democrats relish this prospect. With a lousy economy and falling popularity, their best weapon in 2012 may be the Republicans.
Stan Greenberg, one of the top Democratic polltakers, says that while the Republican survivor in a tough race may be a better candidate, there are danger signs for the party.
“An ideological split is polarizing,” Greenberg says. “It can drive the base or independents away.”
This is a backroom Republican concern. Some supporters of Texas Governor Rick Perry already complain about the broadsides against their candidate in the two months since he entered the race. And John Feehery, a Republican political consultant, worries that if, as many think likely, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney gets the nomination “the anti-Romney forces within the Tea Party will start a rebellion and run a third party.”
Appearances can be damaging. Audiences at Republican forums have booed a gay soldier, cheered at the mention of executions and a few appeared to embrace the notion of letting an uninsured man die if he became ill. None of those are views expressed by the candidates; they still convey an image.
More substantively, however, Republican hopefuls have all rejected a hypothetical deficit-reduction plan that involved huge spending cuts because there also would have been a small tax increase. They also have expressed skepticism about Medicare and Social Security, and hostility to immigration.
Perry, supposedly the leading conservative in the field, most recently has been assailed for allowing sons and daughters of undocumented workers to attend college in Texas at the lower in-state tuition rates. This attack appeals to a virulent anti- immigrant strain in the Republican Party.
It also complicates Republican efforts in the general election to attract the ever-increasing Hispanic vote. Moreover, there’s a certain disconnect. Would the critics deny these academically qualified kids the right to college, which would enhance their value to the economy, or would it be all right if they simply paid the higher tuition, which many can’t afford?
Perry also has been lambasted for once trying to require that Texas schoolgirls be inoculated with a vaccine that minimizes their vulnerability to cervical cancer. This is the second most lethal cancer for women and the vaccine has been strongly endorsed as effective by the Centers for Disease Control. For most Americans, inoculation would seem a reasonable mandate.
Romney, the party’s other frontrunner, is roundly criticized for enacting a health-care plan when he was governor that most analysts say has improved care in Massachusetts. Further, those who charge that the Massachusetts plan was a left-wing precursor to Obama’s Affordable Care Act ignore that Romney was assisted by the conservative Heritage Foundation in designing the measure.
Further back in the Republican pack, former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman has been derided for supporting civil unions for gays and lesbians and recognizing that global warming is a serious problem. Both of these are mainstream views among the general electorate.
Primary battles can be beneficial. Obama’s standing and skills as the Democratic nominee last time were honed by his intense battle for the nomination against Hillary Clinton. An exceptionally tough and protracted battle, it never became ideologically toxic.
“Obama-Clinton was painful for them, but it absolutely did not leave the party divided in any way,” Greenberg says.
Likewise, Ronald Reagan was a much better candidate in the fall of 1980 after defeating George H.W. Bush and Senator Howard Baker in spirited, though relatively civil, Republican primaries. He further created unity by selecting Bush as his running mate.
Other presidential primaries in the modern era have irreparably caricatured a party and a nominee as so out of the mainstream that the fall campaign became impossible. That was the case with Barry Goldwater and the right in the 1964 Republican contest and George McGovern and the left in the 1972 Democratic battle.
Republicans insist they can avoid that pitfall and point to their leading candidates. Perry, supporters say, is more Reagan than Goldwater, able to arouse the faithful while tapping into a much broader public resentment; this is a fear of a few top Obama advisers.
Romney, who increasingly is the candidate of the old-line Republican establishment, has avoided the fringe stances, his supporters say, and is positioned to appeal to centrists and independents in the general election.
That’s the primary concern of the Obama political team, which is why they have -- indelicately -- vowed to demolish the former Massachusetts governor.
The Republican establishment, however, is worried; witness the huge push to persuade New Jersey Governor Chris Christie to enter the fray. If Christie decides to do so, which seems unlikely, within days he’ll face similar challenges to those confronting Perry: Questions about his support for a pathway for citizenship for illegal aliens or for an assault-weapons ban and other gun-control efforts. The conservative faithful aren’t very forgiving these days.
If that persists, whoever wins the nomination, which seems so much more of a prize with the incumbent faltering, could face the Goldwater/McGovern situation.
(Albert R. Hunt is the executive editor for Washington at Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)
--Editors: Max Berley , Mark McQuillan.
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