WASHINGTON — The Republican presidential candidates sound much alike in their zeal to shrink government, cut taxes and replace President Barack Obama's big health care law with, well, something entirely different. It takes some digging to see the distinctions.
That's when Mitt Romney, for example, emerges a few steps removed from the deeply conservative drift of the pack. Sure, he says constitutional abortion rights should be overturned. But unlike Michele Bachmann and some others, he's not up for clashing with the current Supreme Court over it. Yes, he wants to sweep away regulations that interfere with business. But unlike the slashers and burners, he wants the rules to be "updated and modern," not thrown as a heap in the trash.
Altogether, it's a familiar pattern on the cusp of party primaries. The candidates play to their ideological base so hard that true differences among them are blurred. The presumed favorite caters to the same crowd without getting locked into positions that might prove a disadvantage with the broader and more moderate electorate next fall.
That pattern results in an array of positions that sound good to the true believers but have little or no chance of becoming law. And it can produce flat-out contradictions.
Witness Herman Cain's assertions that no abortions should be allowed — and that the government has no business telling a woman she can't have one. Or the position of several candidates that gay marriage should be outlawed in the Constitution — and that states should be allowed to legalize or prohibit it individually, a right they would not have if the Constitution were so amended.
For all the me-too-isms of the campaign, some ideas stand well apart.
Cain is alone in bringing a national sales tax to the table with his catchy 9-9-9 plan to replace existing federal taxes with a 9 percent charge on personal income, businesses and purchases. Jon Huntsman wants federal authorities — yes, the ones empowered by all those regulations — to become even more aggressive on one aspect of the energy industry, breaking what he sees as an oil-company monopoly in the nation's fuel-distribution network to let natural gas compete more favorably.
And Ron Paul, ever the libertarian, proposes an evisceration of government and a disengagement from military obligations abroad that no others approach.
A look at a sampling of issues, what the candidates share and where they differ:
They all want to try to repeal Obama's overhaul and most propose long-held GOP ideas to make insurance and care more affordable. Expansion of tax-advantaged medical savings accounts, limits on medical lawsuits and deregulation in the insurance industry to let policies be sold across state lines are common threads. None would require people to obtain health insurance, although Romney did just that as Massachusetts governor and Newt Gingrich once supported the idea.
Romney and Gingrich would, though, prohibit insurers from dropping or denying coverage to sick people, a key protection under Obama's law, and they are among several candidates who would subsidize premiums through tax breaks or other means. No one lays out a fully developed plan marching the nation toward universal coverage; the priority is to get rid of "Obamacare." Paul proposes an unfettered free-market system that he hopes would see doctors treating the needy for free.
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