- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Recriminations flew from every which way against Republican leaders as voters turned out yesterday for the culmination of an election campaign that had President Bush’s party on the defensive.

With the party fighting to avert a midterm meltdown, conservatives were critical of Republicans on both ideological and tactical grounds.

“This election is not a defeat for conservatives but for Republicans — they thought they could desert core conservative principles, become the party of big government and get away with it,” said Republican media consultant Craig Shirley.

The Rev. Richard Land, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberties Commission, said, “Republicans would have been better off with Mr. Bush heading the ticket, as if it were a presidential year, because Southern Baptists and evangelicals don’t feel the same frustration toward Mr. Bush as they feel toward Republicans in Congress. They have much more affection for him than for Republicans in the House and the Senate.”

Republicans failed to keep the Democrats from “nationalizing” the election, as exit polls indicated that voters considered the Iraq war their top priority. Yet Mr. Land said conservative voters moved toward the Republicans as a result of that “nationalizing” trend.

“Everywhere I’ve traveled, I’ve heard evangelicals say, ‘The Republicans don’t deserve to be re-elected, but we don’t deserve to have Nancy Pelosi as speaker or Harry Reid as Senate majority leader either,’ ” the Baptist spokesman said, referring to the current congressional Democratic leaders.

For many, the election was what Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said he didn’t want it to be — a referendum on Mr. Bush and the Iraq war. Mr. Mehlman had stressed a Republican strategy of emphasizing local candidates and local issues.

“There was general revulsion in the country, particularly among Democrats and independents, against the conduct of the war in Iraq,” said pollster John Zogby. “This was, at the grass roots, a referendum against the war and the president. For Republicans, there was significant disappointment about opportunities lost through enormous budget deficits, threats to civil liberties, a failed social agenda, and the war.”

The war was a serious drag on Republican prospects, said Charles Gerow, a Pennsylvania-based Republican strategist.

“There aren’t many explanations for the Republican’s poor showing in the polls around the country other than the war in Iraq,” Mr. Gerow said. “The economy is doing well, gas prices are down … but there’s no doubt that there’s growing bitterness over the handling of the war — and the messages that are being used to communicate the administrations position aren’t working.”

Longtime conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich agreed.

“The war in Iraq had to be what went most wrong for Republicans,” said Mr. Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation. “The public didn’t like it and blamed the Republican Party for it. A good portion of the disaffected vote was, I think, made up of conservatives. When you add dissatisfaction over the issues of immigration and spending, it was just too much.”

Even conservatives with close ties to the White House were critical of the Republican Party’s recent performance.

“What went wrong for Republicans? Everything,” said American Conservative Union President David A. Keene. “Republicans will blame everyone but themselves, but this will have been a referendum not on the ideas that brought them to power, but on the sorry way in which they’ve gone about either ignoring or implementing those ideas as well as on their competence, integrity and morals.”

Tactical errors on the legislative front abounded, Republican strategists said.

“Our side botched immigration, botched the whole Mark Foley-congressional pages affair,” Mr. Shirley said. “The Republicans in Congress became so insulated from the grass roots and understanding how angry it was over the deviation from Republican principles.”

Richard A. Viguerie, whose direct-mail operations helped build the modern conservative movement, explained Republican woes by noting that in the 2002 and 2004 elections, Mr. Bush and Republicans were “able to make a nexus between Iraq and the war against terrorism. However, that connection has now been broken, and the American people do not see that Iraq has anything to do with fighting the global war against radical Islam.”

Analyzing the party’s troubled campaign season, outgoing Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee said, “What went right was a very focused get-out-the-vote effort and what went wrong is that our party went into this election without having rallied around a single message and direction, the way we did under Ronald Reagan. We splintered over the little things and didn’t unite over the big things.”

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