- The Washington Times - Monday, August 29, 2005

For 10 years, American politics has been sharply polarized, with Republicans and Democrats about equally arrayed angrily against each other. We have come to think of this as a permanent condition. Yet by the next presidential election, that may very well change. For leading candidates for both parties’ 2008 nominations are in significant tension with their parties’ bases — and, in some cases, outright opposition.

This is most clearly the case on the Republican side. The consistent leaders in 2008 polls are John McCain and Rudolph Giuliani. Of the two, Mr. Giuliani is most sharply out of line with the cultural conservatives who have been the dominant force in Republican primaries and provided a large share of the Republican majorities racked up in 2002 and 2004.

Mr. Giuliani is pro-choice on abortion, opposes the partial-birth abortion ban and opposes a constitutional amendment banning same-sex “marriage.” Mr. McCain’s differences with the Republican right are more subtle. He has consistently opposed abortion rights, but doesn’t seem comfortable talking about the issue. He has led on campaign finance regulation and on Kyotolike responses to climate change, contrary to most of his Republican colleagues. At a critical point in the 2000 campaign, he denounced evangelists Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell.

As for the Democrats, Hillary Rodham Clinton is in significant ways out of sync with the Bush-hating left. She voted for the Iraq war resolution and for all the appropriations to fight the war, and she has shown no sign of apologizing for it. She spoke approvingly of the moderate Democratic Leadership Council at its most recent meeting — and got attacked in the left-wing blog Daily Kos for it. From time to time, she has issued sharp partisan attacks on the Bush administration, but she has been careful to distance herself from Michael Moore- or Cindy Sheehan-type rhetoric. You will not catch her calling George W. Bush a maniac or a war criminal.

Of course, none of these three candidates has his or her party’s nomination sewed up. But Mrs. Clinton has to be regarded as the clear favorite in the Democratic race, and not only because over the last 40 years Democrats have won only when they’ve nominated candidates whose last names begin with C.

And while cultural conservatives clearly had veto power over Republican nominations from 1980 to 2000, it’s not clear to me that’s the case any more. Messrs. McCain and Giuliani enjoy great respect among Republican primary voters as strong leaders. Both supported George W. Bush wholeheartedly in 2004 and are in great favor with the Bush White House today. Potential opponents more in line with Mr. Bush’s stands on issues, such as Sens. Bill Frist of Tennessee and George Allen of Virginia, start off much less well known and have not been as visibly tested as Mr. McCain was in Vietnam and Mr. Giuliani was as mayor of New York City on September 11, 2001.

Conservative radio talk-show host Hugh Hewitt, speaking to Republican women in conservative Temecula, Calif., found most favored Mr. Giuliani, despite his positions on cultural issues. Asked why, one said: “All that doesn’t matter if we are attacked. Rudy will keep us safe.” Republican blogger Patrick Ruffini’s late-August poll of more than 10,000 readers showed Mr. Giuliani far in front of the nearest competitor, Mr. Allen.

A McCain or Giuliani nomination could change the regional alignments that have mostly prevailed since the election of 1996, in both directions. Either would almost certainly run better than George W. Bush in the vast suburban tracts of once marginal states like New Jersey and Illinois. But they might not draw the huge turnout of cultural conservatives Mr. Bush got in the non-metropolitan reaches of states like Ohio and Missouri.

The 2004 election was a battle for turnout, which Republicans won: John Kerry’s vote was up 16 percent from Al Gore’s, while Mr. Bush’s vote in 2004 was up 23 percent from 2000. If it’s not clear whether Messrs. McCain or Giuliani could duplicate the right-wing turnout for Mr. Bush, it’s also not clear Mrs. Clinton could duplicate the left-wing turnout in 2004, which was motivated mostly by hatred of Mr. Bush.

We have the habit of complaining about our polarized politics. Well, complain now, because it may change soon.

Michael Barone is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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