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Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Christie Whitman keeps beating the drum for moderation....

Whitman pushes GOP moderation
Monday, April 17, 2006
The Star-Ledger
Former Gov. Christie Whitman believes the Republican Party is in deep trouble.

The GOP, she says, is now where the Democrats were a dozen years ago in Washington when they lost control of the House for the first time in 40 years. President Bush's popularity is at a low ebb and several GOP leaders have been snared in ethics scandals.

"We're at a critical point," she said. "We're starting to see polls that look just like the polls looked to Democrats in '94."

From a converted hayloft of the barn on her family estate in Oldwick, Whitman works each day on what she believes will be the salvation of her party.

She says Republicans must stop their internal bickering and adopt a broader view that allows a less conservative take on social issues such as abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research. She calls for a "new civility."

"The rhetoric is getting harsher, and we're having more divisive elections," Whitman said. "We can't just agree to disagree anymore without being disagreeable. ... People see their opponents as not just wrong, but evil."

Whitman is spreading her word of "radical moderation" and making campaign contributions to moderate candidates through a political action committee she formed last year after releasing her book, "It's My Party Too: The Battle for the Heart of the GOP and the Future of America."

The book has just been published in paperback, giving new spark for an effort she hopes will pave the way for mavericks like Sen. John McCain of Arizona or former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to run for president in 2008. Whitman has collected $1 million for moderate Republicans in as many as 120 local elections across the nation.

"You can't tell people there is a problem and leave them hanging," she said. "I'm not in office. I'm not going to be running for office. I think I have the ability to say some things."

Whitman has found support for her theory in an unlikely ally.

"There may be something to what she says," said Dick Armey, the former House majority leader who along with Newt Gingrich engineered the 1994 Republican takeover of the House.

Armey, president of Freedom Works, a grassroots organization of fiscal conservatives, says the party has become "preoccupied by the Christian conservative agenda," which in turn has frustrated those he refers to as small-government, fiscal conservatives.

"That's a complete misconception," said Marie Tasy of New Jersey Right to Life. Tasy contends the majority of Republicans oppose abortion and considers Whitman's views too liberal.

"These people are crybabies. You can tell by the title of her book: It's like that song, 'It's My Party, and I'll Cry If I Want To,'" Tasy said. "They can't win elections without the base of the party, and the base of the party is pro-life and conservative."

Whitman's Republican moderation movement is not new. Elected as a tax-cutter, she has angered abortion opponents for a long time.

Her reputation with anti-abortion activists was cemented in 1997, when she vetoed a bill to ban late-term abortions. The Republican-controlled state Legislature overrode her veto, but the ban was later overturned by the courts.

Republicans across the nation harshly criticized her. Some conservatives claimed it cost her votes in her razor-close 1997 re-election victory. Whitman, 59, can still feel the sting nearly a decade later.

"What's deeply personal shouldn't be partisan," she said.

Whitman wrote her book after resigning as head of the Environmental Protection Agency, where she had policy disagreements with the Bush administration.

Whitman boasts that her Web site has received 14 million hits and that her group has chapters in 29 states. She says its advisory board includes former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld and former President Gerald Ford.

"It's hard to galvanize people around an idea. Usually you need a candidate or a specific issue," she said.

The It's My Party Too PAC is sorting through candidates that share what Whitman calls "our traditional Republican philosophy" -- lower taxes, less government and a respect for individual rights on social issues.

As an example, she points to a state Senate primary election in Florida, where anti-abortion Operation Rescue founder Randall Terry is challenging the incumbent, Sen. James King Jr., a Jacksonville Republican, after the two went toe-to-toe over Terry Schiavo last year.

As Senate president, King stopped Florida Gov. Jeb Bush from enacting legislation that would have required reinsertion of a feeding tube rather than allowing Schiavo, who spent years in a persistent vegetative state, to die. Randall Terry became a vocal proponent of keeping Schiavo alive by any means necessary.

King can expect a check from Whitman's PAC. "He's being challenged because the right disagrees with him on one issue," she said.

Whitman's PAC will stay out of congressional races, saying similar groups are focused on them but too few are helping moderates get elected to local offices.

That means she is unlikely to get deeply involved in the U.S. Senate race between state Sen. Tom Kean Jr., whose father was one of her mentors, and Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez. She says she'd be glad to do whatever she is asked but is certain Kean doesn't need her help.

She does take note of a parallel in this race with her run for the U.S. Senate in 1990 against incumbent Democratic Sen. Bill Bradley. A newly elected Gov. Jim Florio, like current Gov. Jon Corzine, pushed a substantial tax increase, and Whitman seized on state taxes as an issue in the federal campaign.

"I was an outsider and Bradley refused to take any note of what happened," she said. "Every day we thought he was going to say something. He'd have blown my campaign out of the water if he had. It was mind-boggling that he didn't."

Whitman lost the race narrowly, but it put her in position to defeat Florio for governor in 1993.

Since leaving the Statehouse, Whitman has stayed out of the Garden State political fray in favor of a more national profile. She candidly admits her reputation in just about every other state in the nation is better than it is in New Jersey, where her popularity ebbed after her initial tax cuts.

"A prophet," she laughed, "is never appreciated in her own land."