Republican strategists are working on plans to protect the GOP from
charges of racism or sexism in the general election, as they prepare for
a presidential campaign against the first ever African-American or
female Democratic nominee.
The Republican National Committee has commissioned polling and focus
groups to determine the boundaries of attacking a minority or female
candidate, according to people involved. The secretive effort
underscores the enormous risk senior GOP operatives see for a party
often criticized for its insensitivity to minorities in campaigns dating
back to the 1960s.
The RNC project is viewed as so sensitive that those involved in the
work were reluctant to discuss the findings in detail. But one
Republican strategist, who asked that his name be withheld to speak
candidly, said the research shows the daunting and delicate task ahead.
Republicans will be told to “be sensitive to tone and stick to the
substance of the discussion” and that “the key is that you have to be
sensitive to the fact that you are running against historic firsts,” the
other words, Republicans should expect a severe backlash if they say or
do anything that smacks of politicizing race or gender. They didn’t need
an expensive poll to learn that lesson, however.
They could simply have asked Joe Biden, John Edwards, Bill Clinton or
any number of Democratic politicians who stung over their choice of
words in this campaign already.
GOP officials are certain their words will be scrutinized ever more
aggressively. They anticipate a regular media barrage of accusations of
intolerance – or much worse.
They seem most concerned about Obama right now.
“You can’t run against
the way you could run against Bill
Clinton, Al Gore or John Kerry,” said Jack Kemp, the 1996 GOP vice
presidential nominee, who expressed concern that the party could be
reduced to an “all white country club party” if it does not tread
“Being an African American at the top of the ticket, if he makes it, is
such a great statement about the country,” he added, “Obviously you have
to be sensitive to issues that affect urban America . …You have to be
GOP operatives have already coined a term for clumsy rhetoric:
“undisciplined messaging.” It appears as a bullet point in a Power Point
presentation making the rounds among major donors, party leaders and
surrogates. The presentation outlines five main strategic attacks
against an Obama candidacy, with one of them stating how “undisciplined
messaging carries great risk.”
“Republicans will need to exercise less deafness and more deftness in
dealing with a different looking candidate, whether it is a woman or a
black man,” Republican strategist Kellyanne Conway said. “But at the
same time, really charge back at any insinuation or accusation of sexism
“You can’t allow the party to be Macaca-ed,” she continued, referring to
a much-publicized remark made by former GOP Sen. George Allen that
played a significant role in his 2006 defeat. “I think the standards are
higher and the bar is lower for the Republican Party.”
Republicans interviewed for this story uniformly believe they will have
to be especially careful. Many expect to be held to a higher rhetorical
standard than is customary in campaigns, in part because of perceptions
of intolerance that still dog the party.
“Fair or unfair, but that’s going to be a reality,” said GOP strategist
John Weaver, a longtime confidant of
. “The P.C. [politically correct] police
will be out and the standards will be very narrow.”
The McCain camp is only beginning to explore this dilemma, aides said.
McCain’s strategic team still lacks survey research on either of their
likely opponents in the general election, inhibiting their capacity “to
discuss it intelligently,” a top adviser said. The campaign is currently
occupied with “getting our act together structurally.”
“But my basic thought on it is that McCain is not much of a negative
campaigner anyhow,” the advisor said. “When he does get into debates
with people it’s on issues, substance. So I don’t think we are going to
have to train our candidate not to insult people.”
The potential for mischief reaches well beyond any “undisciplined
messaging” that the Republican nominee might engage in. In the case of
the Clinton campaign, it has been the surrogates – like former President
Clinton – who have been the source of much of the blowback for imprudent
“What I would not do is do what Bill Clinton has done,” said Ed Rollins,
campaign chairman. “I would not in any
way, shape, or form trivialize the strength of an Obama or compare him
to another candidate.”
But some on the right are equally wary of unnecessary timidity.
According to their thinking, the Democratic candidate begins as the
frontrunner in the general election – and that will compel the
Republican Party and its nominee to run a fiercely aggressive campaign.
“If we approach this campaign from the standpoint that we need to take
political sensitivity training because one candidate is a woman or one
candidate is black, I think we are approaching it from the wrong
standpoint because that already handcuffs us,” said Republican
strategist Tony Fabrizio. “If McCain is afraid, or shies away from
taking on Obama because that’s what they worry about, then they’ve lost
the battle to begin with.”