Thursday, February 8, 2007

Many conservatives say they pick “none of the above” when faced with a choice of Arizona Sen. John McCain, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney and former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani as the 2008 Republican presidential nominee.

“When I look at these top three guys, I think of Shania Twain singing ‘That don’t impress me much,’ ” said former House Majority Leader Dick Armey, referring to the popular country singer.

Such dissatisfaction with the leading Republican presidential candidates is widespread among the party’s conservative stalwarts, including many of the 150 alumni of the Reagan administration who attended an annual reunion at the Heritage Foundation on Tuesday night.

“We are without a viable candidate for 2008 at this point,” said Mary Ann Meloy, who was an official in the Reagan White House.

Eagle Forum President Phyllis Schlafly counts herself in the “none of the above” category because, she said, the top three candidates are wrong, ambiguous or suspect on “limiting court jurisdiction, the loss of U.S. jobs from globalism and the immigration-amnesty-guest-worker, pro-life and same-sex marriage issues.”

Similar discontent has been expressed by conservatives as prominent as radio host Rush Limbaugh — who said last month that “there’s nobody out there that revs me up” in the 2008 Republican presidential field — and from many other longtime activists who are influential, if not quite household names.

“No one of the three top-tier individuals is a conservative,” said Tom Carney, a Florida lawyer and Republican fundraiser. “But even more importantly, none of them have original thoughts. They are all ultimate pragmatists. They want to be president without the necessary vision in this time of international crisis.”

Faith Whittlesey, who headed the Reagan White House liaison office and was ambassador to Switzerland, said she is trying to find hope in the situation. “I hear the three choices are all we got, so I would like to see their positions evolve on the core issues that face the nation — and I am, let’s say, hoping for the best,” she said.

Christian Josi, senior vice president of Dezenhall Resources, a Washington-based public relations firm, said, “I am a conservative. I have had all I can stomach of Republicans.”

“To put it very simply, it is very clear that McCain and Giuliani both have demonstrated that they have significant problems with key elements of the Bill of Rights,” Mr. Josi said. “And that is frightening. Don’t get me started on Romney. Suffice to say, I find his ideological commitment to the core conservative principles to be highly suspect.”

At the Reagan reunion, there were some warm words here and there for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich for his breadth of public-policy knowledge, for former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee for his sticking to his conservative social views, for former Virginia Gov. James S. Gilmore III for his nuanced foreign policy and homeland security views, and for Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, whose criticism of the Iraq war resonates with many conservatives disaffected with the Bush administration.

But these men are part of a long list of Republican contenders who are trailing far behind the three leading candidates in opinion polls.

“I say ‘none of the above’ because none of them fits the model of what I think we need as president,” said conservative campaign adviser Eddie Mahe. “Some have philosophical flaws. From 2009 to 2017, international affairs is where we will have to focus — China, Africa, India Russia, the Middle East. I don’t see McCain, Romney or Giuliani or any of the others understanding this changing world, how some of those societies function and how we can best relate to them.”

Mr. Armey said none of the top three Republican contenders “dwells very much on the big issues of our time,” including the direction of foreign policy since September 11, 2001, especially in Iraq.

“I’m not sure what their views are on America exporting democracy by force,” the Texas Republican said. “The only thing that could endear one of these candidates to voters is saying, ‘I know how to get us out of there.’ I’m not sure voters want to hear any more argument about how or why we got in there in the first place.”

Despite such discontent, the Republican Party’s habits may prove hard to break, said one campaign strategist.

“Some conservatives are saying ‘none of the above,’ but history says it will be one of the Big Three — McCain, Romney or Giuliani,” said Republican operative Charlie Gerow, chief executive officer of Harrisburg, Pa.-based Quantum Communications. “It’s part of Republican culture that we nominate front-runners.”

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