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PRUDEN: Day of reckoning for the GOP

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OPINION/ANALYSIS:

Elephants are supposed to have long memories, but not all do. The royal household in Thailand even assembles its elephants once a year so a holy man can preach an annual sermon to the gentle beasts, urging them to mind their manners in the presence of the king. As eloquent as the homily may be, it has to be repeated the following year.

Our own royal elephant needs a frequent sermon, too. This one will be preached Tuesday in the 23rd Congressional District of New York, but repentance and reform of the elephant popularly known as the Grand Old Party rarely lasts very long.

A quirk (actually a perk) in New York election law requires the party chairmen in the counties of the district to choose the party's nominee to fill an open seat between regular elections, so naturally the potbellies in the suits chose someone whose sole qualification was that she was inoffensive to the other party. The selection of a state legislator wonderfully named Dede Scozzafava - which sounds like someone eager to repay the party hacks with scuzzy favors - suited the Republican establishment in Washington right down to the ground. Mzz Scozzafava favors abortion, same-sex marriage, the whims of union bosses and all the things that give modern Democrats a buzz and a tingle. She was a perfect fit for the traditional Republican campaign battle cry: "Vote Republican: We're Not (Quite) As Bad As You Think We Are." The national party chairman and the National Republican Congressional Committee quickly endorsed her. Newt Gingrich, ever on the scout for an opportunity to live up to the noble traditions of the party, quickly followed.

And then angry conservatives took a hand, as they invariably do when Republicans win in spite of everything they can do to undermine unexpected breaks of good fortune. They took up the cause of Doug Hoffman, running on the Conservative Party line, and when his polling momentum propelled him past the party nominee, the party chiefs withdrew their endorsements when no one any longer cared. The result is that the election is in doubt today; the Democratic candidate may well win, anyway. But the lesson should be obvious enough, even for hard heads.

Lessons are available in the gubernatorial races in Virginia and New Jersey, too. In Virginia, Bob McDonnell, a born-again Christian, declined advice to cave under the weight of The Washington Post campaign to drive him out of the race in punishment for a term paper he wrote in graduate school, taking issue with the catechism of radical feminism. The Post campaigned day after day, as if hounding him for the sexual abuse of the little girl whose pigtails he pulled in the first grade. He regarded the advice to quail, apologize and tug his forelock, in the way prescribed for Republicans taking tutelage from Democrats, and the more The Post and the Democratic candidate flailed away, the larger the McDonnell lead grew. He's up more than 10 points in the final polls, and if he loses now it will be a Trumanesque miracle, indeed.

The numbers are not nearly so clear in New Jersey, where a Democrat rarely has a credible excuse for losing, so great is the partisan advantage. Jon Corzine, the fat-cat Democratic incumbent, is so boring and dreary that beating him looked easy enough in September that even a caveman could do it. In the wake of Chris Christie's lachrymose Republican challenge, devoid of anything to make the multitudes want to toss their hats in the air, the huge Democratic registration advantage asserted itself. The governor closed and took the lead. But over the past seven days the race has tightened again, enough to renew Republican hopes of throwing a one-two punch at Barack Obama's inviting glass chin.

Even if they land the one-two punch, the big chiefs of the GOP, like the royal elephants in Thailand, are not likely to understand the lessons laid out before them. They're already trying to reassure themselves that rage against the machine only makes conservatives feel good. One former congressional campaign chairman argues that robust campaigning could consign the Republicans to minority status for decades.

There's no sign that rebellious conservatives - something like "community activists" - are listening to the advocates of graceful losing. The rebellious have supped on red meat. Who would have thought elephants were so tasty?

c Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.

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