(Bernd Debusmann is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own)
By Bernd Debusmann
WASHINGTON It's a first in modern U.S. politics: a Republican presidential candidate so thoroughly detested by hard-core party activists that they vow to vote for a Democrat instead. Part of the reason -- he is not the reincarnation of a dead president revered as a secular saint.
The candidate is Arizona Senator John McCain, who virtually locked up his party's nomination for November's election with a strong showing in the February 5 Super Tuesday nominating contest and the subsequent withdrawal from the race of his strongest rival, Mitt Romney. The secular saint is Ronald Reagan, who left office in 1989 and died in 2004.
Support for McCain comes from independents and moderates. They view him as a plain-talking maverick who sticks to his beliefs even when they are unpopular.
Among many Republicans, no discussion of politics in 2008 is complete without reference to Ronald Reagan, his belief in principles, his role in ending the Cold War and his ability to make Americans feel good about themselves. McCain, they say, doesn't measure up, despite his oft-repeated assertion that he proudly served as "a foot soldier in the Reagan revolution" (of low taxes, low spending and small government).
To hear conservative bloggers and radio talk show hosts tell it, McCain is a dangerous RINO (Republican In Name Only) willing to sell out Republican principles for political expedience. Day after day, callers to talk radio say McCain is so unpalatable that they will either sit out the elections or vote for Hillary Clinton if she becomes the Democratic nominee.
How widespread are such sentiments? According to a straw poll taken at last week's Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC), an annual event which drew more than 6,000 activists from around the country, 10 percent of the 1,558 polled will not vote in the November elections and 19 percent will vote for someone else.
That would mean either Clinton or Barack Obama, who are fighting a close race for the Democratic nomination. It would also mean placing ideological purity over the prospect of continued political power.
Some of the anti-McCain rhetoric is so toxic you hear faint echoes of deep internal Republican party strife almost a century ago when animosity between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft split the party in 1912.
Driven by evangelical Christians and such self-appointed guardians of conservative values as writer Ann Coulter and radio talk show hosts Rush Limbaugh, Laura Ingraham and Sean Hannity, the anti-McCain sentiment underscores the disarray of a party which sent presidents to the White House for 19 of the past 27 years and now fears the good times are over.
Even Karl Rove, the architect of President George W. Bush's electoral victories in 2000 and 2004, concedes that not all is well. "It is true that the Republican Party is having difficulty retooling its message for the 21st century," he wrote in an op-ed article in Newsweek magazine.
LOOKING FOR REPUBLICAN PERFECTION
The day after CPAC, where dozens of delegates ignored requests to refrain from booing McCain, Bush told Republicans there was no such thing as a perfect candidate. "You'll never find that person," he said in a television interview.
By most standards, McCain fits the mould of a conservative Republican. He is in favor of the war in Iraq and has said he would not mind a U.S. military presence there for 100 years. He is against abortion and against gun controls; for low taxes, small government, fiscal discipline and a strong military.
While the motto of both Democratic candidates' campaigns is "change," McCain has offered little different from Bush policies and shrugs off suggestions he is not conservative enough.
"My record in public office taken as a whole is the record of a mainstream conservative," he told the CPAC crowd.
Whether such assertions are sufficient to strip the RINO label off McCain remains to be seen. In the eyes of his right-wing critics, he has committed a long string of sins. They include opposing tax cuts in 2001 and 2003, resisting a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and supporting stem cell research.
Even worse: he sponsored legislation that would have allowed illegal immigrants in the U.S. to eventually become citizens.
The co-sponsor of that bill was Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy, the devil incarnate in the minds of true Republican believers. The immigration reform sank and McCain is backtracking now, saying he failed to convince Americans that its emphasis was on securing the U.S. border with Mexico before tackling other aspects of the problem.
Those whose measure of Republican perfection is Reagan rarely mention that he signed the most comprehensive immigration reform in U.S. history in 1986, a law that granted immediate legal status to more than 2.5 million people who could prove they had been in the country for at least five years.
The idealized Reagan of 1980s nostalgia differs from the warts-and-all president in other respects, too. He raised taxes to bail out Social Security; he grew government; he increased spending; he appointed two moderate judges to the Supreme Court.
And in what today's backers of the war in Iraq would call cut-and-run, he pulled U.S. Marines out of Lebanon a few months after the 1983 suicide bomb attack on the American barracks in Beirut. It killed 220 Marines, 18 sailors and three army soldiers. Reagan initially declared the United States would keep a military presence despite the attack.
His reversal would be called a flip-flop today. But it's not part of the Reagan story retold by the right.
(You can contact the author at Debusmann@Reuters com)
(Editing by Sean Maguire)