In Search Of a GOP St. George

Iowa Republicans will tell you that the Devil does not wear Prada; she wears a pantsuit, low-heeled shoes and a sunny, I-told-you-so smile. Karl Rove insists that Sen. Hillary Clinton is a "fatally flawed candidate," and many Democrats agree. In a new book, "The Neglected Voter," journalist David Kuhn charts the party's waning appeal among white men—a debilitating trend Clinton seems ill-suited to reverse. But Iowans aren't reassured by Rove or flow charts. They assume Clinton will be the nominee, and, with typical earnestness, are searching for the right Saint George to take on the dragon lady. "We have a healthy appreciation for her and what she would represent, which is a hard turn to the left," says Robert Haus, a local GOP media consultant. "The goal of preventing that is what unites us."

Each would-be knight has an anti-Clinton sales pitch, implied or explicit. Mitt Romney offers his hyperfunctional, one-marriage family life, his Democratic Blue State home base and a new managerial synthesis. Rudy Giuliani sent out a fund-raising letter asking for help to "go the distance to beat" Clinton on the theory he'd prevail in a National Security Subway Series. Sen. John McCain growls he knows war best—who would argue?—and Hillary never will, even if the two of them became pals on a fact-finding trip. Former governor Mike Huckabee has his own Clinton angle: as a honey-voiced Baptist preacher from Hope, Ark., he is the real-life version of the down-home guy Bill Clinton sometimes claimed he wished he'd become.

In Iowa, as elsewhere, the quest to find the anti-Clinton is generating as much Republican ennui as excitement. Romney won the for-sale Iowa straw poll, but turnout was abysmal, half of what it was eight years ago. Romneyans have tapped his wealth and corporate prowess to build a solid organization, but even his own backers worry that his Mormonism could be a barrier in the Bible belt. McCain and Huckabee are, respectively, struggling to maintain and trying to get traction. Giuliani's support is so-so: in a church beside a cornfield, a thrice-married Italian Catholic from New York may be a tougher sell than a Mormon. And Giuliani has to take Iowa seriously. He will need a boost there to do what he has to do: beat Romney (and everyone else) in New Hampshire. In national polls, Giuliani remains ahead, but with an average of only 27 percent of the total GOP vote.

All of which left room for Fred Thompson, the actor and former senator, who entered stage right last week at a made-for-TV sendoff in Des Moines. A crowd of 250 turned out to either support him or to inspect him like a prize heifer. He had no leaflets and no position papers—only a pair of newly painted buses and bumper stickers. Voters were hopeful. He was articulate, and on TV exuded an aura of pre-Bush conservatism, more Barry Goldwater than Dick Cheney. The name Ronald Reagan was invoked repeatedly. "Thompson's an actor, maybe he can inspire people the way Reagan did," said Sarah Cutshall, 21, a Drake University junior.

Thompson's performance drew mixed reviews. Laconic by nature, and intent on proving his disdain for the mundane exertions of public life, he seemed half-asleep at times. Ambling onto the stage, he spoke in deep, almost mournful tones about terrorism, profligate spending and bureaucracy; about his Tennessee roots and his "core values." Then he ambled to the bus. The message: after the Clintons' personality pyrotechnics and Bush's Armageddon-every-minute thinking, maybe it is time for a grown-up who reads the fine print before he makes a decision. "Fred is comfortable in his own skin," says Haus, who is working for Thompson. Others were left cold. "He didn't excite the crowd," Cutshall complained. For conservative Republicans, however, maybe that is the most potent anti-Clinton pitch of all: hasn't the country had enough excitement for a while?

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