DES MOINES - Here in the "I" of the 2008 presidential nominating storm, first-in-the-nation Iowa, it's quite calm at theannual state GOP Reagan Dinner. I made the 4-hour drive from Minneapolis not only to attend the dinner, but to visit the Democratic candidates' headquarters, and to get a "sense" of where Iowa is going for its January 3 caucuses.
Fred Thompson spoke, and Mike Huckabee, buoyed by recent polls and media attention, came, too. Mitt Romney, the Iowa frontrunner is not here, but his wife Ann is, and the candidate made a personal videotaped speech to these Iowa GOP bigwigs, most of whom are already committed to one candidate or another. John McCain is not here, but has a hospitality suite to which virtually no one came in spite of a big cake with lots of frosting on it. Rudy Giuliani is also not here, and trails in the local polls in spite of a big lead in much of the rest of the nation.
Another reason I'm here is for the keynote speech by Michael Steele, the former lieutenant governor of Maryland and unsuccessful U.S. senate candidate there last year. Steele is now the head of GOPAC, the organization Newt Gingrich and others founded years ago to foster new ideas and new blood into the Republican Party. Steele's selection is meant to revive the organization. He is also the latest high-profile, black Republican figure (a list that has included Collin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Walter Williams, Thomas Sowell, Ken Blackwell, Condolezza Rice, J.C.Watts, Shelby Steele, James McWhorter, Alphonso Jackson and others) to step forward as a GOP conservative from a community that hitherto sent up only liberal Democrats as their public faces.
Michael Steele has "it," that is to say, the quality we sometimes describe as "charisma." It is not only his tall and commandingphysical presence, but even more the way he speaks and thinks. Republicans nationwide were disappointed at his narrow loss in 2006 to Democrat Ben Cardin, in Maryland, but as is well-known, it was the one of the worst years in decades to run as a Republican, regardless of race or ethnicity, for an open seat in the Congress. Maryland is also considered a very liberal state, and Steele is a strong economic conservative who thinks inbig and challenging perspectives.
His remarks, although not headlined this way, were really about a revised and new Republican Party, one that follows the 2006 electoral debacle, and succeeds the George W. Bush era. Steele makes no excuses or rationalizations for 2006. He says categorically that the Republican Party lost its way. But what is original about Steele in the current intraparty discussion is that he neither suggests as solutions that the party abandon its economic conservative principles nor simultaneously embrace an unthinking return to the radical social notions that once isolated the party and made it a perennial minority party.
From both a pragmatic and idealistic view, Steele is arguing that the "party of Lincoln" must not only re-establish itself as the party of economic prosperity and freedom, it must also continue to reach out to its former historical electoral base among black voters (as Jack Kemp has long urged) and welcome into its ranks, the large and growing Hispanic-American voter community, something which former Texas Governor George W. Bush so ably began to do in his two presidential campaigns. (Still another growing community, Southeast Asians, I think could be added to that list, as its numbers have swelled in several states, and in a short time, had considerable economic and political impact.)
Steele is a strongly pro-life Republican who was popular in pro-choice Maryland. He is not a social liberal, but he does understand that there are issues, which if taken to their extreme, satisfy only their zealots. As someone from an Eastern Seaboard urban state with a complex population, he argues for a Republican Party that can not only survive but once again flourish in our new electoral culture.
I will be returning to Iowa to examine the Democratic presidential race more closely. On this trip, I was able to observe Democratic candidates setting up for a donnybrook in January. The sense of how close Senator Hillary Clinton might be to locking up her party's nomination early is felt no greater than here where, if a change in momentum is to occur, it will probably have to begin to happen in Iowa. Of course, Howard Dean came into Iowa at this point in the 2004 campaign the prohibitive favorite, and left Iowa hopelessly behind Senators Kerry and Edwards.
The "Iowa" of the 2008 storm will not be so calm very much longer.
____________________________________________________-This article was first published in The Washington Times on Nov. 2nd, 2007.