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Theme Wars 2000 | The Nation

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Theme Wars 2000

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With Bauer around, commentator Patrick Buchanan, should he enter, would not be the only shock-the-conscience candidate of the right. Buchanan and Bauer differ little in tone and position on social issues. Of the two, Bauer "is the candidate with money and organization," says Kellyanne Fitzpatrick, a Republican consultant who has done work for Bauer in the past. "He could be the Pat Buchanan of 2000--even if Buchanan is in the race." Buchanan, though, has more experience pitching economic nationalism. Of late, he has bemoaned the pressure that foreign steel companies have placed on US firms. "Buchanan has the credibility on economic nationalism," a Republican Party strategist says. "He can make inroads into ethnic Democrats in crossover states that Bauer can't touch." Buchanan remains the natural leader for anti-NAFTA/antiabortion/anti-UN conservatives.

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David Corn
David Corn is Mother Jones' Washington bureau chief. Until 2007, he was Washington editor of The Nation. He has written...

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Also chasing the far right is former Vice President Dan Quayle. He, too, has been banging the impeachment drum, and social cons remember him fondly for taking on the fictitious Murphy Brown. He has moved to outflank other conservatives by proposing a 30 percent across-the-board tax cut--trebling the initiative put forward by House Republicans. And he's declared war on the son of the man who gave him his last job. In a letter sent to financial supporters, Quayle wrote, "I have ordered my staff to never--EVER--utter the words 'compassionate conservative'! This silly and insulting term was created by liberal Republicans and is nothing more than a code for surrendering our values and principles." But Quayle--the only candidate currently scoping the religious right who has ever held elected office--is making a case for himself primarily on foreign policy grounds. At an address at the Heritage Foundation, he proclaimed, "No presidential candidate should be taken seriously unless he or she understands the importance of foreign policy." The assumption is that he does. After all, what can he offer that Forbes, Buchanan, Bauer, Dole and Bush cannot? So he's playing up the threats of international terrorism and ballistic-missile proliferation. Outraged at Hollywood and nervous about terrorists and missile attacks from Saddam? Quayle is for you.

Arizona Senator John McCain, former Tennessee Governor Lamar Alexander and Representative John Kasich are all struggling to find a path to the nomination that does not pass straight through the Christian Coalition. Last year McCain pushed the antitobacco bill and campaign finance reform legislation. Both irritated Republicans and both got clobbered. "How do you run by pissing off Republicans on tobacco and campaign money?" asks one Republican pollster. What McCain, a former prisoner of war who has become a national voice on foreign policy, can serve up is Honor (even if he was ensnared in the Keating Five S&L scandal). In a recent speech, he attacked pork-barrel spending by both parties and assailed special interests in Washington. McCain has an advantage in that he can be summed up neatly: the hero-maverick. But who in the Republican Party is yearning for a clean-money rebel?

In 1996 Lamar Alexander had an icon and a theme: the red plaid shirt. His fashion statement was supposed to signal that he was from beyond the Beltway. But his anti-Washington shtick did not ignite a wildfire of support at country clubs across the land. That was no surprise; the guy's a millionaire who served in President Bush's Cabinet. For this campaign, Alexander has retired the shirt, moving on to a new device: We The Parents. That's the name of an organization he created that laments the difficulty of being a parent these days. Its solution: Triple the federal tax deduction for each child. In mid-January, he moved to claim another piece of strategic turf. Asked what issues the GOP should highlight, Alexander remarked, "We can be the party of the great American outdoors." And how could it do so? Hand responsibility for the national parks to state and local governments, he said. "There's a big Republican opportunity here." Give back the parks? Whether or not Alexander has hit on a winning issue, he is one of the best fundraisers in the race; his prowess will keep him afloat. But still, his kids-and-parks message will have to survive the glare from candidates with greater star power.

John Kasich of Ohio will also have trouble elbowing his way to notice. He says he wants "to begin to run America from the bottom up rather than the top down and to promote, again, the sense that we need common values in our country, and, thirdly...to renew the American spirit." It's Gingrich-lite, offered by a fresh-faced, upbeat 46-year-old. Kasich, whose tax-cut fever is tailored for GOP yuppies and entrepreneurs, has been peddling his own ready-for-the-campaign moral vision. He released a book--modeled on Profiles in Courage--that celebrates volunteers who "do God's work on earth." He is presenting himself as religious without sticking out his neck on the divisive issues of abortion and homosexuality.

With all these aspirants, it will be hard to track the GOP message war. Does Kasich make inroads with economic libertarians who drooled over Forbes in 1996 but now fret about his lurch to the social right? Will Bush and Dole battle over style more than substance? Can McCain and Alexander locate audiences? Will Buchanan and Bauer fight to the death over who's more antigay and antiabortion? Will anyone take Quayle's foreign policy fear-mongering seriously? Or pay attention to New Hampshire Senator Bob Smith, a declared candidate who does not even have the support of his own state party? Others may enter and further balkanize the race: Jack Kemp, Pete Wilson, George Pataki, Orrin Hatch, Alan Keyes.

Already, the frustration among some candidates is bubbling up. Asked about Bush's "compassionate conservatism," Alexander groused, "I don't like those words. I think those are weasel words. I think they mean nothing. They're just like Al Gore's words, 'practical idealism.'... Mr. Gore and Mr. Bush [are] using weasel words to build their whole political identity, and I think our attitude ought to be...no more weasel words." If only. But, sorry, Mr. No-More-Plaid, the weasels are off and running, and you're in there with them.

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