By M.E. SPRENGELMEYER
Scripps Howard News Service
April 16, 2007
There hasn't been this fierce a fight to become "fourth man" since 1962, when Ringo Starr nudged aside Pete Best and became drummer for the Beatles.
When Iowa Republicans began chowing down on $75-a-plate pork loin Saturday night at the party's annual Abraham Lincoln Unity Dinner here, there was little doubt which ones entered as front-runners.
When long-shot candidates take aim, they squish them together into one derisive nickname: "Rudy McRomney," as in former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, Arizona Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
"Rudy McRomney is not a conservative, and he knows he is not a conservative," former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore told 1,000 party activists at the Polk County Convention Complex.
Political analysts, rank-and-file Republicans and even some of the nine candidates who spoke Saturday night are surprised that the three early leaders in the race all stand in the ideological center or were moderates who have evolved their positions to fit the traditions of the Grand Old Party.
Political insiders expect a fourth option to emerge: an unquestioned, same-as-it-ever-was sort of conservative.
After all, Giuliani has to explain away his three marriages and long-standing pro-choice stand.
McCain must answer for past criticisms of religious conservatives and defend compromise legislation on immigration reform that links his name to liberal Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass.
And Romney is being stalked around the country by a costumed porpoise accusing him of being a "flipper" on issues like abortion and gun rights.
Still, those three tower over the field so far.
And while they were among nine contenders who spoke Saturday, the event really was a crucial test for the six vying to emerge as the fourth option. Their challenge: make a good impression quickly to prevent party activists from looking outside the current field.
Some GOP activists left the convention hall still mentioning two absent friends - actor and former Tennessee Sen. Fred Thompson and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia - who would fit the bill for those looking for an old-fashioned Republican.
"I'd sure like to include a Gingrich or Thompson. They'd really add to it," said John Rhoades, 59, of Des Moines.
By Iowa tradition, some activists are simply waiting for the field to shake out.
"There's enough there. We just need to fine-tune it and weed them out," said Cheryl Jahnel, a former Mitchell County supervisor.
At this early stage, the two best-known candidates, McCain and Giuliani, are the ones who spend the most time defending the unpopular war in Iraq and the need for a leader to continue the fight against terrorism.
While others echo the theme, often taking harsh aim at Democratic war critics, they spend more time talking about home-front issues that have traditionally been important for the Republican base.
Candidate Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., brought copies of the cumbersome income-tax code to Saturday's dinner, saying it should be "taken behind a barn and killed with a dull ax."
Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, a Baptist minister, stresses moral and family-values themes. He has expressed frustration at unnamed evangelical Christian leaders who were critical of President Bill Clinton's behavior while in office but have not said that morality matters in the Republican presidential field.
Huckabee insists he's not pointing a finger at any particular candidate, although his criticism is often interpreted as a reference to Giuliani's three marriages and McCain's two.
Former Wisconsin Gov. Tommy Thompson enjoys a nearly-home-field advantage in the first-in-the-nation Iowa caucuses. Since he comes from the state next door, he has visited the Hawkeye State virtually every weekend for months.
His pitch - loudest and longest of the speeches Saturday night - is that party members need to shake off last year's election defeats and stick with "optimistic" conservative values.
Illinois attorney John Cox argues that congressional Republicans have lost their way by allowing government spending to grow.
"We can get the principles of the Republican Party back in the Republican Party, and we will win if we stick to our principles," Cox told the crowd.
Meanwhile, Colorado's entrant in the field, Rep. Tom Tancredo, is trying to gain traction by riding his signature issue: a call for tougher border enforcement and opposition to guest-worker plans he equates to "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.
He won both applause and scattered "oohs" Saturday by questioning whether unnamed candidates really share that view.
"We have many good men in this race. Many have recently converted to our cause," Tancredo said. "My concern is that the conversions have occurred not on the road to Damascus, but on the road here to Des Moines. They have spent a lifetime on the other side."
And thus, Tancredo and the rest of the second tier argue for the party faithful to hold out for a true believer.
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