It's hard to be a Republican these days. While Democrats are pleased with their crop of presidential candidates and energized by them, you're unsure and unenthusiastic. You're not eager to go to the polls and vote because you can't even decide which box to check. You used to feel inspired and at home with the ideals and ideas offered by your leaders; now you can't find one fellow who has it all. It's way past Ronald Reagan in the GOP, and about to be post-George W. Bush. So who's your daddy?
It's a question Republicans can't seem to answer. In the early primary and caucus states, GOP voters made only one thing clear: They're searching. Like the proverbial blind man and the elephant, they find presidential attributes in different places, yet they can't come upon the whole picture. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's I'm-fighting-for-the-little-guy economic populism and faith-based homilies can be appealing. John McCain's fierce independence and national security credentials are impressive. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney's can-do CEO experience is part of a great résumé. Or maybe Rudy Giuliani is the tough boss America needs.
Way back when (last summer), the Republican establishment was looking at TV star and former Sen. Fred Thompson as the guy who might rescue the party from any messiness. Trouble was, while he looked like a president, he campaigned as if he were running for a part-time job. So the establishment went back on the hunt for Mr. October.
But there was no natural. If this were the Democratic Party, that would be just fine, because it's the way things have always worked. But these are Republicans, and they're not used to such brawling. Sure, it was messy in 1976 when Ronald Reagan unsuccessfully challenged incumbent President Gerald Ford, but that all got resolved nicely when Reagan ran and won four years later. And Republicans started having succession contests rather than long-lasting battles, because they were happy. The GOP establishment cheerfully—if not always successfully—nominated the next guy in line for his turn to become president. Only this year, two things are different: McCain is the only one who has been waiting (since he ran in 2000), and there is no unified GOP establishment to anoint him. And while he has a bunch of key supporters in early states, it probably won't guarantee him much of anything except some organization, a few nice press conferences, and a bunch of votes. Not victory.
Life might be happier for the GOP if the governing were going better. Republicans lost control of Congress in 2006—and now they're hoping to just hold on to their margins next time around. Most of all, they've got a president whose popularity rating sits uncomfortably below 40 percent, running a war that is just as unpopular, with an uncertain economy. "We need a savior right now," moans one GOP strategist. "But there's no one who fits the bill. And even if there were, we'd be having a hard time agreeing on who it is."
No unity. Even the tried-and-true Republican issue set is up for grabs. Huckabee wants a national sales tax instead of the income tax, and some Republicans are aghast that one of their own could propose something so regressive. McCain spoke of global warming and fuel efficiency standards for cars in Michigan, of all places, and got whomped for it. Huckabee has even split the evangelical movement along generational lines; after all, Pat Robertson did endorse Giuliani. Mitt Romney seems to be the only candidate truly in tune with every segment of the divided GOP electorate—constantly morphing into whatever is demanded in order to win.
Maybe strategy will be everything for a party in search of its new brand. It is, at least, for Giuliani, who hasn't really competed in the early states. He figures he'll be the guy on the white horse riding in to rescue the party by winning the Florida primary on January 29. One tiny problem: The voters might figure you don't deserve a nomination after a drop-by on the process. The Republicans have always been kind of old-fashioned about fighting to win.