Charlie Neibergall, Associated Press
WASHINGTON — In the first presidential election since the tea party's emergence, Republican candidates are drifting rightward on a range of issues, even though more centrist stands might play well in the 2012 general election.
On energy, taxes, health care and other topics, the top candidates hold positions that are more conservative than those they espoused a few years ago.
The shifts reflect the evolving views of conservative voters, who will play a major role in choosing the Republican nominee. In that sense, the candidates' repositioning seems savvy or even essential.
But the eventual nominee will face President Barack Obama in the 2012 general election, when independent voters appear likely to be decisive players once again. Those independents may be far less enamored of hard-right positions than are the GOP activists who will wield power in the Iowa caucuses, the New Hampshire primary and other nominating contests.
"The most visible shift in the political landscape" in recent years "is the emergence of a single bloc of across-the-board conservatives," says the Pew Research Center, which conducts extensive voter surveys. Many of them "take extremely conservative positions on nearly all issues," Pew reports. They largely "agree with the tea party," and "very strongly disapprove of Barack Obama's job performance."
Climate policy is a dramatic example of how GOP presidential hopefuls have shifted to the right in recent years. Former Govs. Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota and Jon Huntsman of Utah, along with other likely candidates, have backed away from earlier embraces of regional "cap-and-trade" programs to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.
Such stands were unremarkable in GOP circles just a few years ago. Sen. John McCain, the 2008 presidential nominee, supported a cap and trade plan to place prices and limits on the emission of heat-trapping gasses.
Now the position is anathema to millions of Republicans, and therefore to the party's candidates. Pawlenty is the most effusive in his backtracking. "I was wrong, it was a mistake, and I'm sorry," he says repeatedly.
The likely presidential candidates have shifted rightward on other issues as well.
Romney, who leads in most polls, has rejected his earlier stands supporting abortion rights, gun control and gay rights. He says his 2006 law requiring Massachusetts residents to obtain health insurance was right for his state at the time, but he has condemned the Obama-backed mandate that would cover all Americans.
Pawlenty campaigns as a tight-fisted conservative who would refuse to raise the nation's debt ceiling, even though many Republican leaders say economic chaos would ensue. Yet in 2006, Pawlenty told a newspaper, "the era of small government is over" and "government has to be more proactive, more aggressive."
Pawlenty says he was partly quoting another person. But in the same 2006 interview he said, "there are certain circumstances where you've got to have government put up the guardrails or bust up entrenched interests before they become too powerful."
Pawlenty has abandoned such talk in his presidential quest.
The Republican Party's rightward drift is causing headaches for the presidential hopefuls on the issue of Medicare, a potential minefield in the general election. House Republicans passed a bill that eventually would convert Medicare to a less costly, less generous program. It would help older Americans buy health insurance, but it no longer would provide benefits based mainly on a patient's needs rather than costs.
Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich touched off a firestorm by calling the plan radical. He spent the better part of a week trying to recant, change the subject and get his campaign back on track.
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