Republican Party Divided on Major Issues

The Republican Party isn't looking too solid. While it is typically known for carrying the message and minimizing differences, the 10 men vying for president weren't in sync about much during their debate Tuesday evening. They were split on immigration, the handling of Hurricane Katrina, foreign policy, and the Iraq war. There is no sense that they are inheriting any particular ideology.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

That's the kind of remark you normally would not expect to hear Republicans make about each other in public. Republicans are better known for minimizing their differences, but this is no ordinary time.

NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams has been talking with key Republicans. Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: You got some analysis here. What's the evidence that Republicans are not getting along so much as they might have in the past?

WILLIAMS: Well, it's the attacks on President Bush. I think it's a reflection of a startling divide on the president and, you know, which it means and what it means to be a Republican in this generation. I guess the way I would think of it, Steve, is there's no heir to the throne, and there's no mantle to be inherited looking forward from the Bush administration. So you see this scattering across the stage last night with people feeling free to openly attack the incumbent president.

INSKEEP: Ten candidates on that stage - that's says something in itself, doesn't it?

WILLIAMS: I think it really does. I think, you know, they're people who are looking to fill the role. They all want to somehow advance a new generation of Republican ideology. What does it mean to be a Republican at this time? So you see splits on immigration. You see - and Duncan Hunter, I think, is there representing just that kind of thing - the congressman.

You see splits on spinning the idea of compassionate conservative - which had been a Bush idea, now criticized as big government - criticism of Katrina and the handling of Katrina. Former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee saying the administration lost credibility for its failed handling of Katrina, split on the whole notion of foreign policy, the neo-conservative idea of spreading democracy now in disrepute.

Tommy Thompson, the former secretary of Health and Human Services in the Bush administration saying he wouldn't send President Bush to the U.N. I think that was startling. Split on the handling of the war, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney saying the administration was under prepared - ill prepared for the postwar period. All of that, Steve, I think reflects how scattered the Republican Party is at this moment as it searches for a new leader.

INSKEEP: Although the other thing that I suppose you could learn from the fact there are 10 candidates on the stage and a couple of more alluded to waiting in the wings is that there don't seem to be a lot of Republicans that think they'd have no chance to keep the White House in 2008.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's true, because again, there is no consistency. There's no idea that you're inheriting anything or you have anything to carry on. You know, you think back, Steve - you had a Bush or a Reagan on the ticket for the last quarter century or so - I guess, with one exception, Dole in '96. And you think back, there was a previous period like this recently where you had Eisenhower, Nixon or Ford - beginning in '52 - on the ticket.

Right now, I think, what you see is people seeking that message that will galvanize Republicans for a new era. Are they going to be able to start a new era of Republican messages and leadership in '08, or will they have to wait beyond that since Bush and Cheney aren't running? But it's not only that Bush and Cheney aren't running, it's just that it doesn't seem to be any consistent message that any of the 10 who wants to carry on at this moment.

INSKEEP: Is part of the problem that Republicans were in power, have been -remain in power for so long, and after a while it becomes a struggle to figure out what you want to do next?

WILLIAMS: Well, that's true. You can run out of ideas. I think that, you know, it's interesting after '06, Karl Rove and Republican - some of the Republicans in the White House were saying it's a matter of corruption. The other issue's not a lack of message. But at the moment, I think it's largely the president's poll ratings. He's 29 percent according to the latest Pew poll, which is a record low. Sixty percent of Republicans approve of the president, but it was 80 percent in April. That's a reflection of the split on immigration, a split in the party.

INSKEEP: Juan, good talking with you.

WILLIAMS: All right, Steve.

INSKEEP: Analysis this morning from NPR senior correspondent, Juan Williams.

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