George Who?

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It's somehow fitting that republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney chose an early autumnal setting (ah, the change of season!) for one of his latest TV ads in New Hampshire. The leafy backdrop is hard to avoid as the candidate describes how "change begins with us"—that is, Republicans. Hmm. Isn't there a Republican in the White House? Didn't Republicans control the Congress for 12 years? And don't most support the war? Never mind. The GOP presidential field has clearly gotten the message about change, which is not surprising: A recent Gallup Poll showed that a whopping 93 percent of Americans agree that a drive to "bring about change" in Washington is the "most desirable" trait a candidate can have. Voters generally have a harder time agreeing on the time of day.

The unlucky candidate who looks even remotely status-quo-ish is a goner. Which is why Romney cleverly tells his fellow Republicans to "put our own house in order," including an admonition that "we can't have ethical standards that are a punch line for Jay Leno." And in a well-scripted piece of political jujitsu, Romney then chastises his GOP brethren about morphing into the enemy: "We can't be like Democrats—a party of big spending.... When Republicans act like Democrats, America loses. It's time for Republicans to start acting like Republicans."

Take that, George W. Bush. And take that, fellow Republicans. No matter how skillfully Romney tries to insert those evil Democrats into this ad, it's not about them. It's about Romney—distancing himself from the president. (Hello, independent New Hampshire voters!) And it's about becoming the first GOP candidate to admit the party is broken. "That way," says unaffiliated GOP pollster Tony Fabrizio, "Romney positions himself as the guy trying to change the party. Can he be the agent for change that leads the party out of the wilderness?"

Delicate task. That's what Romney hopes—but he's not alone. "Call it Republican triangulation," says antitax activist Grover Norquist. And it's a delicate task for these Republicans: ever so gently declaring their independence from Bush in the primaries (without alienating that large group of Bush supporters), then moving on to a complete separation in the general election. "In the primaries, they'll be nicer to Bush," says Norquist. "Then, later on, they still won't criticize him; they'll just ignore him. Bush will be He-Who-Is-Not-Talked-About." That is, if Republicans want to win. Even Bush the Elder criticized the more popular Ronald Reagan when he ran as his successor, calling for a "kinder, gentler" administration. This time, Norquist adds, "we all know there is not going to be a third Bush term." Ipso facto, Republicans run as the change agents.

Democratic presidential candidate Bill Richardson can barely contain himself at the thought of it. "It's so ludicrous, it's funny," he told me. "Ridiculous." And yet, given the president's almost subterranean standing, Republicans have no choice. For some, like John McCain, a separation from Bush is a matter of survival. But it's also a contortion, which he has perfected on the campaign trail—supporting the surge in Iraq (a defining characteristic of his campaign), yet criticizing the way the administration has conducted the war. The "Straight Talk Express" has become the "No Surrender" tour—an embrace of Gen. David Petraeus, a rejection of the "failed Rumsfeld strategy," almost no mention of the president. Rudy Giuliani—who also set himself apart from Bush on the "mistakes" made in the war—has less to lose by saying nice things about the president. After all, given Giuliani's more liberal social credentials, Bush helps with conservatives. As for Fred Thompson, he just says he's his own man. And not much more.

If this election becomes a referendum on the Republican Party, the GOP will lose—and the candidates know it. That's why they want this to be a choice election, about their vision of change versus the Democratic vision. Or, as one Romney adviser puts it, "the right change versus the wrong change." Right now, he says, it's fine for Romney to "differentiate" himself from Bush. "Separation," he says, "could come in six months." That's when new Republican ideas—and not lame-duck presidents—brand the party. As Romney says in his ad, "It's time for a change."