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As Florida Votes, No GOP Role Model Intact

President Bush's speech last night, more stagecraft than statesmanship, underscored the president's diminished influence. (Getty).

By Dan Balz
President Bush's last State of the Union address and the final day of campaigning before Tuesday's Florida primary drew a disconsolate portrait of the political party that just three years ago this week believed its future was unlimited.

In Washington, Bush's speech to a joint session of Congress underscored the president's diminished influence. His ambitions have been trimmed and his powers limited by the disapproval of the public and a hunger even on the part of members of his own party to move to the post-Bush era as quickly as they can.

The scene in the House chamber Monday night at times conveyed to viewers a sense this was more stagecraft than statesmanship -- an event without its normal significance. What is typically a grand affair of state became an almost comical exercise -- particularly on the part of lawmakers.

Republicans and occasionally Democrats jumped up and down like rival college students on opposite sides of a stadium. Even the most mundane of proposals brought thunderous applause and standing ovations. The displays of partisan gamesmanship, even though an accepted part of recent State of the Union addresses, was so prevalent that even the president broke into laughter at one point as he watched from the Speaker's rostrum.

In Florida, where the stakes are real, Mitt Romney and John McCain hammered each other throughout the day as they sought an advantage in a primary election that likely will stamp one of them as the front-runner for the Republican nomination.

McCain charged Romney with being in league with Democratic opponents of the war in Iraq by embracing (secret) timetables for withdrawing U.S. forces -- a charge Romney says is flat wrong. Romney said McCain's work in the Senate helped put the country on a "liberal Democratic course."

One of the specifics in Romney's bill of particulars was immigration. There McCain backed a proposal -- which never became law -- that had the whole-hearted support of the president. But never mind.

The juxtaposition of Bush in Washington and McCain-Romney in Florida underscored the disconnect between the campaign for the Republican nomination and the man these candidates hope to succeed.

Parallel universes hardly describes the planets the players now inhabit. Romney and McCain may find selective aspects of Bush's presidency to embrace but in no way are they running as his successor.

When it is convenient, they attack his policies, if not the president directly. McCain has repeatedly denounced Donald Rumsfeld for disastrous mistakes in Iraq but not the commander-in-chief. Romney links McCain and the Democrats on immigration while ignoring Bush advocacy. Both decry "out-of-control spending" that occurred during the GOP's power years in Washington without singling out the president's role.

Bush has left the Republican Party in tatters. His final year will be one of small ambitions at home and the hope for some lasting success abroad. But he appears to be in no position to rescue the party that he led to two big victories in 2000 and 2004.

The question is whether either McCain or Romney can do so. Neither appears well-suited at the moment, although nomination battles have a way of changing perceptions of winning candidates. Perhaps by summer, the victor will have found a voice and a vision that will give Republicans what they are lacking today.

McCain's challenge is the one that his tart-tongued mother described so aptly a week ago during an interview with C-SPAN's Steve Scully. Will the Republican Party have to hold its nose and accept as its leader a politician who has regularly bruised the egos of his congressional colleagues?

McCain's credentials as a champion of bipartisanship are unquestioned -- and there is clear hunger for that spirit on the part of many voters. But he first must prove he can unite and energize his own party. Florida's results will be critical to that effort -- as will states that vote next week on Super Tuesday -- but his ability to unite and give vision to his party remains in question.

Romney is equally suspect. His establishment support comes in part from those Republicans who cannot abide McCain. But there is little personal affection for him within the GOP establishment -- or among his rivals for the nomination.

When Bush ran in 2000, he not only had the support of the party establishment, he had their affection and admiration. Romney hopes first to win the support. Affection, respect and admiration will have to come later.

So the party reaches the critical moment in Florida without a role model or without a candidate who has excited either the establishment or the grass roots. Ronald Reagan's model is out of date. George W. Bush's has been discredited. Neither McCain nor Romney has stepped in to fill the vacuum.

McCain has demonstrated the importance of character in the face of adversity -- in this campaign and throughout his life. But he has not been a party builder. Romney has a raft of credentials from his days in the private sector but a record in public life that leaves one to guess what his core convictions are or where he might try to take the Republican Party.

The Republican nomination battle may be heading toward a conclusion over the next few weeks. But after a year of campaigning, the Republican Party may be little closer to a consensus about its future when the Bush presidency comes to an end.

By Washington Post editors  |  January 29, 2008; 1:47 PM ET
Categories:  Dan Balz's Take  
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