Republican Moderates Reflect On Place In GOP

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Social conservatives have warmed to John McCain, thanks in large part to his vice-presidential pick, Gov. Sarah Palin. Delegates from the battleground state of Florida and moderate Republicans reflect on Palin and their place in the GOP.


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Im Michele Norris.


And Im Melissa Block.

In St. Paul, they speak of Sarah Palin preparing to make the speech of her life tonight. The Alaska governor will accept the vice-presidential nomination before a big national audience.

Our co-host, Robert Siegel, is in St. Paul at the Republican convention. And, Robert, great expectations for the speech there tonight?

ROBERT SIEGEL: I think so, yes. Sarah Palin has worked in television. She demonstrated in Dayton, when the announcement of Senator McCains pick was made public, that she seems comfortable on television. This is a very big event before a huge crowd, but its a very controlled event. No matter what she does, therere going to be thousands of people waving placards and applauding her every word. So Id say that moderate Republicans whom Ive been talking with are very interested in hearing what she has to say. And for her conservative admirers in the party, this is a guaranteed lovefest tonight.

BLOCK: She has had a rough couple of days, Robert, the announcement that shes hired a lawyer for the Troopergate scandal, the announcement that her 17-year-old daughter Bristol is pregnant. Do you get any sense there in St. Paul that enthusiasm for her has been shaking at all?

SIEGEL: No, I dont. In fact, theres been so much coverage of her daughter, of the Trooper investigation, but also you read about who belonged when to the Alaska Independence Party? What did she do when she was mayor of that small town to the town librarian? I mean, thereve been so many stories that - as two Florida delegates put it to me, they regard the press coverage of Sarah Palin as so unfair that it is a gift to the GOP.


SIEGEL: Nothing unites Republicans like feeling that the press is treating them

BLOCK: Yeah.

SIEGEL: unfairly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: So, they say and someone said to me, the same papers, you know, that wouldnt touch the John Edwards baby story for months were out there asking very inappropriate questions about pregnancies in the Palin family. So, right now, it seems to have drawn Republicans together on her behalf.

BLOCK: You mentioned earlier, Robert, youve been talking to Robert - moderates as well. What are they saying about the McCain-Palin ticket?

SIEGEL: Yes. Ive been talking - and actually, by incredible coincidence, I brought you recordings of what they said to me a while ago.

(Soundbite of laughter)

BLOCK: Yes, Im not surprised.

SIEGEL: Ill play excerpts of them. Theyre making the most of what they like about the presidential candidate, John McCain, his willingness to break with party leaders, his greenness on occasion that is environmentalism. And theyre also stressing Sarah Palins executive experience rather than the socially conservative views of hers that have so endeared her to the socially conservative wing of the party.

One of the people I spoke with was Christie Whitman, who used to be governor of New Jersey and then head of the EPA in the Bush administration. She is now involved with a new centrist Republican group called the Republican Leadership Council. She and former Missouri Republican senator John Danforth run that. The group is trying to win back state legislatures by running moderate Republican candidates. As she acknowledges, it is the social conservatives who were galvanized by the Palin nomination. This is what she said:

Ms. CHRISTIE WHITMAN (Former Governor, New Jersey; Co-Founder, Republican Leadership Council): No, theres no question that she has energized a base, and thats what the campaign was looking for. But you have to remember thats against the fact that John McCain did not have their unequivocal support because he wasnt conservative enough for those that are truly litmus test.

He is more of a free thinker on those issues. Yes, he has always been very strongly pro-life, but he believes in stem-cell research and things like that. So, hes broken with them, and thats really why theyve been so disaffected or unhappy up til now.

SIEGEL: So, members of the Republican Leadership Council have to stress the very things that have made conservatives a little iffy about John McCain. Those are the things you take heart in?

Ms. WHITMAN: Yeah. Thats what we look at. The Republican Leadership Council is focusing primarily on the state and local races. And what were looking for is candidates who say, you know, look, I understand and I have strong values, but Im not going to feel that youre evil because we dont agree on every position and adhere to the other basic Republican tenets. But thats about it.

SIEGEL: Has it been a distraction that were learning so much about, perhaps more about Sarah Palins family than we might have wanted to know a couple of days ago?

Ms. WHITMAN: I think we probably always would have learned all of this at one point or another, so at least its, you know, coming out now and people can judge it as how they feel about it.

SIEGEL: Another argument to moderates on behalf of this very conservative GOP ticket runs this way: Think about pragmatic, centrist leadership. Carly Fiorina, the former Hewlett-Packard boss, has campaigned prominently alongside John McCain. And she says shes been doing a lot of talking to middle-class independents and Democrats.

Ms. CARLY FIORINA (Former CEO, Hewlett-Packard): Many Democrats have conservative social values. Ive spent a lot of time in Pennsylvania and Ohio, and working-class families in Pennsylvania and Ohio appreciate conservative social values. But they also are very concerned that an Obama-Biden ticket would take their party way too far to the left. And what they see in John McCain is actually a centrist in terms of his governing philosophy. And they see a track record of someone who has consistently reached his hand across the aisle on issues like immigration reform, on issues like campaign finance reform, on issues like climate change, and cap and trade system. They see him as a centrist with a governing philosophy of bipartisanship.

SIEGEL: At a Florida delegation breakfast this morning, state legislative leaders from Tallahassee addressed the delegates. State Senator Jeff Atwater of Broward and Palm Beach Counties is about to become the Republican leader in the upper chamber. And he was echoing the theme of last nights speeches to the convention - speeches putting service to country over party orthodoxy.

State Senator JEFF ATWATER (Republican, Florida): When Sarah Palin saw corruption in the government of Alaska, in our own party, she didnt vote present. She knew what was at stake in the integrity of governance by self-rule. She stood up, and she voted country first, and we should be proud of Sarah.

(Soundbite of cheering)

SIEGEL: Jeff Atwater is considered a moderate in the Florida party. And when he told me the case that he can make to moderates on McCains behalf, again - as with Christie Whitman - it sounded like everything that makes GOP conservatives mistrust McCain.

State Senator ATWATER: The man was willing to take the scorn of his own party to go campaign finance reform, to think broader about the prospects of what immigration could and may look like in this country, to be thoughtful about -lets not just be forcing down our moment in time on judgeships, lets create the Gang of 14 and find a way to work through it. The man has been extraordinarily willing to look at, as I would say today, at country first.

SIEGEL: The dean of GOP moderates is Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter, the pro-choice senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, which confirms federal judges and justices. He says Palins place on the ticket will help the Republicans appeal to some independent voters, but what about pro-choice, moderate voters?

Senator ARLEN SPECTER (Republican, Pennsylvania; Chairman, Senate Judiciary Committee): People will understand that Senator McCain felt he had to solidify the base. People understand the pragmatism of politics.

SIEGEL: At a Q&A session with reporters today, Specter was pressed. Would Palin hurt the ticket in the suburban counties near Philadelphia where he typically runs very well?

Sen. SPECTER: Its all the matter of balance out. And I think that Senator McCain has made a careful calculation. I know John McCain to be a careful, a careful man, and I think hes made a calculation.

SIEGEL: I asked Senator Specter if Supreme Court justices will be an issue, and if hes satisfied with Senator McCains promise of more nominees like Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito.

Sen. SPECTER: The Supreme Court justices will be an issue in the campaign. And I think that Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito have brought to the court the kind of professional qualifications which are traditional on the court.

SIEGEL: And judicial philosophy?

Sen. SPECTER: Well, were theyre at an early stage in their careers on judicial philosophy, but they withstood the questioning of many diverse points of view.

SIEGEL: Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. Like many Republicans here, moderate and conservative, he says he is eager to hear what Governor Sarah Palin of Alaska has to say in her speech tonight, her speech accepting the Republican nomination for vice president.

At the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, this is Robert Siegel.

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