ANALYSIS: REPUBLICANS: Split party seeks path to reunion

By Aaron Gould Sheinin
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Published on: 02/07/08

Mike Huckabee won the Republican primary here Tuesday by lopping off Georgia’s top quarter and driving straight down the center of the state in a broad swath three to six counties wide.

John McCain took second place by carving off hamlike slabs of the state’s southwest and southeast corners with Mitt Romney jamming metro Atlanta into his column.

Somebody needs to put all those pieces back together again, or Republicans in Georgia could have problems in November.

“The party has a lot of work to do,” agreed Gwinnett County Republican chairman Gregory Howard.

The past few weeks showcased Republicans’ passion for politics and their enthusiasm for their candidates. While more Democrats than Republicans voted in Georgia on Tuesday, the GOP set its own record, with 950,000 ballots cast.

The race also showcased a split in the party, one that bears attention by its leaders. Huckabee was a clear favorite of many evangelicals and social conservatives. McCain led among disaffected Republicans, those who have started to look skeptically at the Bush administration and the war in Iraq. Romney took some of the evangelical vote from Huckabee and some of the fiscal conservative vote.

But the race also featured some nasty cuts as the candidates, and sometimes their local surrogates, took aim at one another.

Romney accused Huckabee and McCain of being in cahoots to rob conservatives of their voice. McCain and Romney called each other liberals. Romney treated Huckabee like a pest, and Huckabee got his back up about it. And state Republicans frequently joined in.

Huckabee, of course, got the last laugh, and the majority of Georgia delegates, but for those on the ground in the state, the rift is real. But its impact is difficult to gauge.

Howard thinks Republicans need to remember their history.

There are eight pillars that form the Republican Party foundation, he said: cutting taxes, reducing the size of government, balancing the budget and being fiscally responsible, creating a strong national defense, fighting terrorism, emphasizing free enterprise, getting tough on crime and emphasizing social issues.

“Look at the candidates (for president). They’re all good Republicans,” Howard said. “The thing is, their focus is on different pillars.”

And while McCain focuses more on a strong national defense and fighting terrorism, and Huckabee is more about taxes and social issues, one does not outweigh the other, Howard said.

“It’s going to take the party leadership reinforcing that these people can be strong in three of these pillars and still be considered a great candidate,” he said.

Mark DeMoss, an Atlanta-based Republican consultant and evangelical, was an early and vocal Romney supporter. He was in Boston with Romney on Tuesday, and said he is frustrated by what he sees as one-topic voters.

DeMoss is worried that many of his fellow evangelicals in Georgia backed Huckabee just because the man used to be a Southern Baptist minister and is “one of them.”

“And every day I talk to some who can tell me nothing else about him,” DeMoss said. “And I just don’t think that’s responsible. I don’t think that’s responsible leadership or citizenship.”

But Shawn Davis, Huckabee’s Georgia spokesman, said the concept of Huckabee winning only because of evangelicals is getting tiresome.

In fact, he said, exit polls showed independents going more for Huckabee than McCain. Surveys of voters as they exited the polls Tuesday showed the former Arkansas governor getting the support of 40 percent of voters in the GOP primary who identified themselves as independents. Even given the question’s 10-point margin of error that’s more than McCain.

Kay Godwin of Blackshear, in south Georgia, is a major Huckabee supporter, and echoed Davis’ thoughts.

“It was a combination” of things, she said. His support for the FairTax, his values, the man himself all made a difference. Plus, he had a terrific campaign here, she said.

It was, she said, “our deep-rooted core conservative values and our tremendous grassroots efforts.”

Godwin couldn’t predict whether the campaign would carry over and hurt the party. Sens. Johnny Isakson and Saxby Chambliss both endorsed McCain late in the campaign and were widely criticized by Republican congressmen and state lawmakers for the move. Will Isakson and Chambliss suffer for that?

“I don’t know,” Godwin said. “You’ll just have to wait and see. I don’t know.”

At least one group of Republicans is ready to mend the rift. The Georgia Federation of Young Republican Clubs adopted a resolution on Tuesday criticizing conservative talk radio hosts for adding to the divisiveness and said it’s time for Republicans to come together, no matter who becomes the eventual nominee.

Sam Olens, chairman of the Cobb County Board of Commissioners and a member of Romney’s state leadership team, said he sees the ongoing primary campaign as a positive.

“I find it exciting that the race is still active in both parties,” he said. “I for one think that’s good for both parties and very exciting for the public.”

Still, Olens said, there often is the need for healing after primaries.

“I share some of those same concerns,” he said, “but once again, as a Republican, it’s my hope that the healing will happen sooner rather than later because I hope that one of the two Democrats don’t become president.”

That is the party’s ultimate salve, said party chairwoman Sue Everhart. They don’t want to see an Obama or another Clinton presidency.

“In a presidential year, momentum really goes from the top of the ticket down and Republicans are just a passionate bunch,” he said. “I can tell you, we’ll win Georgia with our candidate in November.”

ON AJC.COM: Up-to-the-minute vote, delegate counts.

SHANNON PEAVY / Staff HOW GEORGIA VOTED: Republicans With 96% reporting Map of Georgia is color-coded to indicate counties voting for Huckabee, those voting for McCain, and those voting for Romney. Sources: Secretary of State; compiled by MEGAN CLARKE / Staff