Voters stop flirting with fiery right

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The Independent Online

Dickinson County, Iowa

Is it the end for Dole? Will the Forbes bubble burst? What are the chances of a late run by Gramm, or Alexander? The answers to these questions, of consuming interest as they are to the political-cum-sports pundits commentating on the Republican presidential race, remain as inscrutable as the next Kentucky Derby winner.

Obscured by the dust of the electoral contest, a deeper truth lies hidden. The Republican Revolution, in full flood a year ago, has ebbed. The radical zeal that swept Newt Gingrich and his cohorts to power in the November 1994 Congressional elections is waning. No longer is the fuel that drives the party engine provided by the firebrand faithful of the Christian Coalition, whose message to congressional Republicans was "if you back us on abortion and family values, we'll bring our crusading zeal to bear on your efforts to slash the budget".

The message from Iowa, the state where the caucuses on Monday will test the support of the Republican candidates for the first time in the campaign, is that America, having flirted with fire, has shifted its affections back to the centre.

Rick Ayres, the chairman of the Dickinson County Republicans, in the farmlands of north-west Iowa, feels uncomfortable with extremists generally, and the Christian Coalition in particular. "I cringe when I hear the ultra- right sometimes. Especially on abortion. I don't feel it belongs in the political arena. If you are a victim of rape or incest, I'm all for it."

A year ago Mr Ayres might have been expelled for uttering such sentiments. Lonnie Saunders, a lawyer who chairs the Dickinson County Dole campaign, might have thought twice before saying that abortion was "gone" as an issue now. "Most people say 'I don't like abortion but it shouldn't be legislated,' " he said. "Dole is a typical middle-of-the-roader on this."

Steve Forbes and Bob Dole, whose barnstorming in Iowa has left them clear ahead of the rest of the field for the Republican presidential nomination, are resolute moderates who shun pulpit politics. Pat Buchanan, the Alf Garnett of US politics, is out of the running. Phil Gramm - the champion of free enterprise, scourge of illegal immigrants and the undeserving poor - strains to put a brave face on his predicament: he has raised as much campaign money as anyone but, as his single-digit poll figures indicate, the Gingrich message has already exceeded its sell-by date.

Mr Forbes has employed his vast family fortune to blitz the Iowa airwaves with his proposal for a flat income tax of 17 per cent. His principal appeal lies in his opposition to what he calls "the Washington culture". His success in selling himself as a political outsider, one whose money and reputation were obtained in the private sector, provides clear evidence that Mr Gingrich's Napoleonic congressional enterprise has left a bad taste in American mouths, a feeling of having been cheated. The budgetary row which prompted the Republicans in the House of Representatives to close down much of the federal government over Christmas and the New Year merely confirmed the growing suspicion that the Republican Revolution was merely another name for sordid, self-interested Washington politics as usual.

The conventional wisdom at the start of the presidential campaign might have been that such a message would not wash among the Republican faithful without a heavy sprinkling of fundamentalist Christianity. Yet Mr Forbes appears, if anything, to have benefited from treating the true believers with disdain.

On abortion, he has upset pro-life crusaders: he made his position clear in a TV interview last September when he said he wished "to help create an environment where abortion will wither away".

His position on homosexuals is no more appealing to the Christian right. Last week he was asked on the campaign trail in Iowa whether he approved of same-sex marriages. He replied: "If you want to live together, fine. If you want to have a life together, fine. But compassion is not approval."

Mr Dole suffers from the comparison with Mr Forbes on account of age, his reputation as a Washington insider and because he has been unable to shake off the image of man who has no clear policies, who will tailor his message to fit the opinion poll fashions. Yet that alone marks him out as a wet.

Compromise was a word unknown to the House members who set the Republican tone in 1995. But Mr Dole, the Senate majority leader, is a man whose middle name is compromise. He is a man who makes deals. No one knows for sure how hot his passion is for balancing the budget, for combating abortion, for reducing sex on television, for stopping Mexicans wading over the Rio Grande. And no one knows whether he will modify tomorrow the position he claims today.

Which means he occupies the mushy centre - which is why it is he and Mr Forbes, and not Mr Gramm and Mr Buchanan or the fading Mr Gingrich, who are battling today for the soul of the Republican Party.