There are 353 days until the 2008 election. Anybody tired of it yet? We’re currently in the personal attacks/endorsements phase, soon to be followed by the ever-popular awkward appearances to branch-out phase, and yet no candidate or party has separated itself from the rest of the pack in terms of popularity.

On the GOP side, things are significantly more wide open than on the Democratic side, where it is looking more and more like Hillary Clinton is destined to be the nominee. Lately, though, all of the Republican candidates have veered from a true conservative platform to distinguish themselves from President Bush or take blind stabs at Clinton. So which of the Republican candidates can get his act together and band the leaderless conservatives together to win the presidency?

The conservative National Right to Life Movement recently endorsed actor/former senator Fred Thompson, but there are questions about just how pro-life he is. Twice as a senator, Thompson voted against an endorsement of Roe v. Wade, yet he has a completed survey to his name that says he is in favor of legal abortion (he claims he does not remember such a survey).

In his wavering, Thompson isn’t alone: Rudy Giuliani was endorsed by evangelist Pat Robertson, and some question Giuliani’s faith, given his marital scandals as mayor of New York. It seems that none of this year’s Republican field even remembers what a Republican is.

So what should a Republican be? There is no strict set of views a candidate must have, and that seems to be the problem with this bunch: They’re all trying to say just the right thing that will make voters say “Aha! It’s Ronald Reagan all over again!” But was Reagan a true conservative? His two terms were notoriously spend-happy, though George W. Bush would put him to shame.

Reagan said in 1975, “A political party cannot be all things to all people. It must represent certain fundamental beliefs which must not be compromised to political expediency.” That’s a statement he never shied away from, even on hot-button issues like military spending, religion and, of course, taxes. Whatever Reagan was, he was just the right amount of it at all the right times, considering his two gigantic electoral victories.

All of today’s GOP candidates seem like the antithesis of the fundamentals of Reagan: They are catering to the masses, rather than being confident in why they belong in the Republican Party. Giuliani can’t go anywhere without the phrases “America’s mayor” and “stopping the next Sept. 11” being uttered. Mitt Romney became a “life-long member” of the National Rifle Association almost overnight, and he spends more time defending his faith than he does his politics.

John McCain is the most worthy of the nomination, because he has answers for the Iraq problem (he’s actually been there), and he wants to reduce the deficit, but has anyone changed positions more often than McCain in recent years? Ron Paul, the most surprising of all the candidates, has surprising popularity, but anyone who has so little faith in the system to want to completely dismantle all of it is no Republican.

This field is lackluster, but not for a moment do I count myself among those relishing the return of someone like Newt Gingrich. The Republicans are only now beginning to overshadow their negative image as a bunch of corrupt fat cats who are out of touch with America and ready to let the government go into a shutdown rather than compromise. Such an image might as well be Gingrich’s personal legacy: The last thing the party needs is to accept the entrance of the man whose fall from grace was just as drastic as his storied rise. Crooked political scheming within the party may have started with the administration of Richard Nixon, but there’s no reason to have that be a newfound fundamental of the GOP. Thankfully, it’s looking more and more like the party won’t have to make that choice.

The Republicans must stop pretending to be Reagan and start paying attention to what actually made him so good at building coalitions and winning elections. As soon as one candidate can figure out how to have the rhetoric of Reagan while also mastering his skill at personal communication, timely, weighed proposals and mass appeal, it is that person’s charge to bring the party back under one banner. It’s the only chance the Republicans have of escaping the fate President Bush’s recent bumbling seems to have locked them into: Losing the election.

Kevin Bunkley can be reached at kevrbunk@umich.edu

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