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Will GOP follow Graham model -- or succumb?

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While the GOP is on track to score big victories in 2010, it's in grave danger of committing long-term suicide unless it's rescued from right-wing madness.

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Riding a wave of anger at Democrats over spending and failure to solve the economic crisis, Republicans may even capture control of the House this year.

But consistent -- sometimes ugly -- opposition to immigration reform, resistance to climate change remedies, hostility toward gay rights, incendiary language at Tea Party rallies and waging primaries as ideological purification rituals all represent long-term threats to the party.

So does the perception -- opportunistically spread by Democrats--that the GOP is merely the "party of no" without constructive ideas for solving national problems.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., is not going to be the party's savior -- that has to be its 2012 presidential nominee -- but the more the party follows his advice and example, the better off it will be.

Graham insisted to me in an interview last week, "I want the most conservative guys and gals (as candidates), too."

However, Graham said the GOP will never be a national party until it changes course on immigration and improves its relationship with young people, who voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama.

"That's why I'm involved in the climate and energy debate. I think Republicans need to be proudly for clean air. And, I think it's important that Republicans repair the damage with Hispanics done in the 2007 immigration debate."

Graham has been working across party lines on climate change legislation with Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Joe Lieberman, ID-Conn., and with Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., on comprehensive immigration reform.

Both causes are in political limbo at the moment--victims of GOP opposition and Democratic gamesmanship -- but Graham, at least, comes out of the effort a model problem-solver.

He contends that his approval ratings in South Carolina are holding up -- 64 percent among repeat Republican voters -- but he's been censured by local GOP committees and subjected to savage personal attacks by anti-immigration nativists.

However, his political logic is one the GOP desperately needs to adopt to secure its future.

"If we just rail on illegal immigration, demagogue it and don't have a solution that's realistic, then we will become less and less relevant.

"The growth potential in America lies with demographic changes and independents. Independents are the fastest-growing group in terms of political identification.

"Demographically, we are becoming a more diverse country. ... Conservatism will appeal to the public at large because the public is right of center.

"But ideology that is extreme never sells 50 percent. You have to be relevant to people's lives. You have to solve problems that people deal with every day. ...

"If you want to purify the party, then the cost is the ability to grow because purification is not a game of addition. It's a game of subtraction. Coalition building is a game of addition."

Political scientist Alan Abramowitz of Emory University bolsters Graham's thesis. In 2008, he noted in a recent Internet article, Republican presidential candidate John McCain carried the white vote by 11.6 million, but Obama won by carrying "non-whites" by 21.1 million.

As Abramowitz wrote, "2010 is likely to be a very good year for Republicans. Yet there is a real danger that Republican leaders and strategists will interpret (that) strong showing as vindication for a strategy based largely on energizing the party's conservative white base.

"That base is indeed energized. But it is also shrinking due to the steady growth of the non-white electorate. ... Unless Republicans can expand their support among non-white voters, they will have to win a much larger share of the white vote than they have in any recent presidential election in order to remain competitive.

"However, increasing the Republican share of the non-white vote would require the GOP to move closer to the ideological center on issues such as government services, health care and immigration -- a shift that would be certain to arouse intense opposition from conservative pundits and activists."

The GOP could square this circle by nominating an updated version of Ronald Reagan, who held the GOP base while winning over independents. The new savior will have to appeal to minorities, too.

In the meantime, the party needs to listen more to Lindsey Graham and less to Rush Limbaugh.

Morton Kondracke is executive editor of Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill.

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Pioneer staff reports
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