How Tuesday's Vote Could Define the Republican Party

  • Share
  • Read Later
Campaign-watchers are looking to Tuesday night's Republican primaries as a litmus test of how much George W. Bush has divided the "compassionate" and "conservative" factions of the party he promised to unite. While Bush captured a commanding victory in Saturday's closely watched South Carolina primary, many analysts say he mortgaged the future of his campaign by conceding too much to the religious right, which makes up an unusually large chunk of South Carolina Republicans (roughly 35 percent). Exit polls in South Carolina revealed that John McCain won every major demographic group except for religious conservatives, who overwhelmingly supported Bush. But while many thought South Carolina would provide huge momentum to its victor, a Zogby poll taken the day after Bush's victory showed McCain ahead by two points in Michigan — the same margin he held in midweek polling.

What remains to be seen is how much this divide will take root in the rest of the nation. McCain continued to steal some of Bush's centrist thunder in South Carolina by campaigning on a message of inclusiveness, overtly asking Democrats and independents to support him. Bush, meanwhile, accused McCain of abandoning the Republican core. But since Saturday, McCain's gone on the attack in Michigan, claiming that Bush represents only the extreme right of the party. McCain's been telling Michiganders that most Republicans now favor a more centrist platform that includes paying down the debt and allowing some forms of abortion, as opposed to Bush's conservative-tinged calls for massive tax cuts and eroding abortion rights. He's also implied that Bush was pandering to an anti-Catholic, racist portion of the party by making his controversial appearance at South Carolina's Bob Jones University. The tack could pay dividends in Michigan, which, like South Carolina, holds an open primary.

To the party faithful, one thing is clear — the sooner this race ends, the better. With McCain leading comfortably in polls of his home state of Arizona, which also holds a primary Tuesday night, a victory in Michigan could mean a party increasingly divided in the coming weeks. And that could spell bad news for the GOP come November.