WASHINGTON — Richard Nixon knew a thing or two about politics after being on the Republican national ticket a record five times.
Run to the right in the primaries, he advised fellow Republicans. Then run as hard as you can to the center for the general election.
The large field of candidates for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination is enthusiastically following at least the first half of his strategy by running harder and farther to the right than any Republican field since 1980, or perhaps 1964.
They could reinvent the party, much as Barry Goldwater did in 1964 or Ronald Reagan did in 1980. They would reject the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush, circa 2000, which appealed to suburban moderates but frustrated conservatives with a free-spending, big-government approach that expanded the federal role in education, created the first new entitlement since the 1960s and sought to allow illegal immigrants to remain in the country.
Yet while as Reagan ended up winning the White House in a landslide, Goldwater, who declared that "extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," lost it in a landslide. A sharp turn to the right — or left — is politically risky, particularly if the country isn’t willing to go along.
And at this stage, a year before the general election, Republicans are running toward the party’s base to win primaries but running away from the rest of the country on issues such as Iraq, Iran, immigration and federal spending.
To the candidates, it’s a stand for conservative principles.
“I …speak for the Republican wing of the Republican Party," former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney said during a recent campaign appearance in Nevada, borrowing liberally from Democrat Howard Dean in 2004.
“I was conservative as soon as I put down `Conscience of a Conservative,’’’ said former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson, in a recent debate reference to Goldwater’s book.
“I'm running on my record as a reliable conservative of 24 years,” said Sen. John McCain of Arizona.
Even the one social liberal among them, former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, strives to paper over his support for abortion rights with his vow to appoint “strict constructionist” judges, a coded message to conservatives that he could name judges who'd oppose abortion rights.
To some in the party, it’s a dangerous stretch for votes on the right that will cost them in the center or among groups that their party had been courting, such as Hispanics.
“One gets the impression of decent men, intimidated by the vocal anger of elements of their own party,” said former chief Bush speechwriter Michael Gerson in an essay criticizing the candidates for their stands on illegal immigrants.
On immigration, most of the top candidates vehemently oppose any path to citizenship for illegal immigrants already in the United States.
When McCain joined Bush in supporting such a citizenship option, his already shaky support in the party collapsed. Thompson went so far as to say it’s worth considering banning citizenship for any child born in the United States to non-citizens, a right that was added to the Constitution in 1868.
A majority of Americans side with the Republicans in supporting a crackdown on illegal immigration at the border or punitive measures in the United States, such as denying illegal immigrants driver’s licenses.
Yet they support a path to citizenship for those already here by a margin of 58 percent to 35 percent, according to a recent ABC News poll.
On Iran, top-tier Republican presidential candidates vow pre-emptive military action if necessary to stop the country from developing nuclear weapons.
That puts them at odds with the American people, who oppose military action against Iran by 68 percent to 29 percent, according to a recent poll by Opinion Research Corp. for CNN.
Looked at more precisely, Americans oppose air strikes against suspected nuclear sites in Iran by 54 percent to 38 percent, and they oppose sending in ground troops by 76 percent to 18 percent, according to a poll by Princeton Survey Research Associates for Newsweek.
On the federal budget, the candidates all promise to reverse the party’s big spending ways of the last six years.
Romney, for example, says he'd cut domestic spending that isn’t on auto-pilot like Social Security and Medicare by $300 billion over 10 years.
While popular in the abstract, cutting spending often proves more unpopular when it’s proposed for an actual program. Even scaling back an increase in spending can be perilous. All the candidates, for example, backed Bush’s effort to curb an increase in the State Children’s Health Insurance Program.
Americans, however, supported the increased spending by 61 percent to 35 percent in a recent survey for CNN.
On Iraq, all the candidates enthusiastically support the war and the dispatch of additional troops. Yet polls found that Americans oppose the war by margins of 2 to 1, and a plurality believe that the surge of troops is having no impact.
Of course, both parties cater to their base in primaries, when the fringes are more active and have more influence. But the Republicans are at a disadvantage.
First, the polls indicate that the country is leaning toward the Democrats on most major issues. Second, the Republicans lack a clear front-runner and remain in a multi-candidate scramble for conservative support.
By comparison, Democratic front-runner Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York has started staking out some centrist or conservative positions, such as saying she'd keep troops in Iraq and supporting anti-Iran language in the Senate.
“It surprises me they’re going so far to the right,” said independent pollster John Zogby. “They are running to the right even more than they have traditionally, because one in five Republicans is undecided, and twice that, about 40 percent, say they’re not satisfied with the field.”
Can the Republicans still make a pitch to the suburban moderates, independents and Hispanics, who could hold the key to the election? They'd still have this record of specific proposals and quotes following them. And they'd be getting a late start. But at least one Republican thinks they could.
“To cater to the party faithful, they are so out of sync with the independents and so on who swing the election,” said Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., a moderate and former chairman of his party’s political operation for House candidates. “The Democrats have the same problem. It’s going to be interesting to see how they each shift.”
Note: The Newsweek poll surveyed 1,000 adults Oct. 19-20 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The CNN poll on Iran and children’s health care surveyed 1,212 adults Oct. 12-14 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.
The ABC News poll of 1,035 adults was conducted Sept. 27-30 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.