Mired in Memphis

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The Republican would-be presidential candidates, or most of them, displayed their wares earlier this month in Memphis.

Judging from the content of the speeches, it was a rather dismal performance.

Even before 2,000 faithful partisans at the Southern GOP Leadership Conference, the lineup was hardly a distinguished group.

Sen. John McCain of Arizona, struggling to fight off the label of a moderate, cozied up to President Bush's loyalists. These are the same people who seriously doubt McCain is a true conservative in their image.

Of course, this is the same McCain who was smeared recklessly by the Bush forces in the presidential primary in South Carolina six years ago. It is hard to see how McCain even speaks to Bush, but presidential fever is a serious illness. As one wag put it, embalming fluid is the only cure.

Sen. George Allen of Virginia went after the far-right vote with gusto. He said there was "no substitute for victory" in Iraq. Certainly he was thinking about some sort of political victory since the military operations against the insurgents continue to sink into a quagmire.

Those jingoistic words drew an ovation, but Allen is clearly on the fringe with his appeal.

Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Senate leader, is dealing from weakness. Even some Republicans think he has been an ineffective leader. And his diagnosis by television of Terri Schiavo in Florida was an incredible blunder for a heart surgeon.

Frist and the others, including Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, railed against "wasteful government spending" in Washington. It was something of a theme for the procession of speakers, who apparently don't want to talk about the real reasons for runaway spending.

It isn't at home but in Iraq and Afghanistan where reports of waste mount every month. But Republicans want to cut any increases in education, welfare, and health programs and keep pouring billions into those two countries.

Meanwhile, the best news for Democrats came in Florida when GOP Rep. Katherine Harris announced she is staying in the race for Senate and will spend her late father's inheritance to do so. Her flawed campaign has upset some GOP officials in the state, and if she is the nominee, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson is almost assured of re-election.

Democrats who remember then Florida Secretary of State Harris's eagerness to award the state to Bush in the 2000 recount battle will be happy to see her go home.