Don't look now, but GOP might be embracing moderation

The Baltimore Sun

Goodbye, Karl Rove.

Hello, Rudy Giuliani.

Freeze this moment. The national Republican Party is suddenly looking good to me.

Mr. Rove is leaving Washington for Texas, having abandoned his bold dream of a permanent Republican majority anchored by its conservative base.

Mr. Giuliani, a centrist candidate, is sitting atop the party's nationwide opinion polls.

These are developments that give faint hope to a Midwesterner who has watched what happens when the grip of the Republican "base" becomes a vise. It squeezes moderate politicians out of the party and turns state legislative sessions into bizarre exercises in which every bill must be scrubbed of the possibility that it might somehow permit abortion or embryonic stem-cell research.

If the national party embraces a standard-bearer who occupies the center (albeit the rightward part of it), might the states follow suit?

Right. I know. A lot of "ifs" there. New York's former mayor has to retain his lead in the polls. He has to resist the temptation to be reborn as a religious conservative - an unlikely move, but he wouldn't be the first politician to undergo the conversion.

My happy scenario could deflate faster than a blown tire.

But let's imagine, for a moment, a national campaign that leaves the usual wedge issues off the table.

Mr. Giuliani, like the leading Democratic contenders, believes abortion should be legal. Despite recent backpedaling on rights for gay couples, he pushed for legislation offering protections to same-sex partners while mayor of New York. Americans know the recently divorced mayor was temporarily domiciled in the apartment of a gay couple when terrorists attacked the World Trade Center.

Let's contemplate an election season that focuses more on candidates' leadership abilities than their "family values."

Let's envision political debates that focus on national security, the Mideast crises, energy sources, health care and gun violence.

Let's think about a Republican standard-bearer who believes government should be tuned and improved, not dismantled.

Mr. Giuliani likes tax cuts more than taxes, and as mayor he enjoyed jettisoning programs that he didn't think delivered value. But no one successfully runs New York City without gaining a healthy respect for what government, properly channeled, can accomplish.

Americans yearn for a political contest played in the center. In a recent CNN poll, respondents named the war in Iraq, terrorism, education and health care as issues most likely to be "extremely important" to their vote. Abortion, stem-cell research and gay unions were most likely to be deemed "not that important."

Recent surveys by the Pew Research Center show an increasing number of voters, especially younger ones, who think government should provide more services. And the number of people who identify as intensely religious has dropped sharply in the last four years.

Democrats with national ambitions learned the hard way to move to the center. Rare is the politician who supports gun control and abortion rights without qualifying those positions.

To survive in the national game, it looks as though the GOP may also be headed toward the 50-yard line.

Freeze those visions as a delectable reminder of what could be.

Barbara Shelly is a member of the Kansas City Star's editorial board. Her e-mail is

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