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Inside Politics: GOP debate over policy and personalities

By John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent
March 14, 2014 -- Updated 1410 GMT (2210 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • GOP weighs leadership and future after internal ideological battle, demographic changes
  • Questions of ideological leanings will influence the 2016 GOP presidential nominating contest
  • Those questions are playing out among possible presidential contenders, current leadership
  • Opinions of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell embody internal debate over leadership

Washington (CNN) -- It's getting personal on all fronts as Republicans debate the wisdom of their leaders -- present and future.

Two leading GOP 2016 contenders, the freshmen Sens. Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, are in a public spat over foreign policy that quickly became framed around what seems to be the perennial GOP question: Who is the heir to Ronald Reagan?

And while that plays out, two of the right's outspoken and at times outlandish voices are in a war of words over whether conservatives should see Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell as a hero or a heretic.

These debates are entertaining and interesting, not to mention telling snapshots of the struggle within the Republican Party and conservative movement to find a consensus message -- and acceptable messengers.

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Some of it should look familiar to Democrats who remember the years between Mondale '84 and Clinton '92: a party in exile from the White House has no singular leader, and so has more open, and vocal, competition over policy and personalities.

Then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton and his merry band of Democratic Leadership Council centrists argued the Democratic Party was too liberal, too tied to big labor and too afraid to talk about things like work requirements in welfare programs.

No, perhaps they didn't have the notoriety of today's tea party. But those were not exactly days of Democratic unity. "Democrats for the Leisure Class," was the label Jesse Jackson put on Clinton and the DLC.

It was great political theater, and like the Republican tug-of-war today an instructive look at the tensions in a party that at the time was strong at the congressional level but not credible at the presidential level.

My, how the tide has turned. Republicans now control the House and have a good chance to take control of the Senate in this year's midterm elections.

2014 midterm elections

But those successes haven't eased the demographic crisis that confronts Republicans at the presidential level: If the GOP can't improve its standing among Latinos, African-Americans and millennials, then the path to 270 electoral votes will get more difficult with each passing day. The demographic changes in America are the GOP's inconvenient truth.

And so their transition plays out now just as it did for Democrats in the late '80s and early '90s.

Cruz sees the tea party message as the GOP's future. Paul has a more cobblestone or patchwork approach: His dad's libertarian band as a base, a slice of the tea party pie as a building block, and then outreach, not always successful, to younger voters and African-Americans and -- God forbid -- even to the GOP establishment.

Purity vs. pluralism, sort of.

They are hardly the only voices.

Another freshman senator, Marco Rubio of Florida, had the first crack at being labeled the GOP savior, then rankled some of the base with his support of a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants. Rubio is stirring anew, with tough talk on foreign policy and a focus on poverty.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry is proof that second chances are an American political tradition. He bombed in 2012. But don't count him out. As Cruz and Paul exchange barbs in the "Who is the next Ronald Reagan" debate, remember Reagan was a governor and an optimist. Perry is both of those.

And remember Reagan's critics, including early competitors within the GOP, wrote him off as not too bright. Reagan had the last laugh and then some. Perry is angling to get that chance in 2016, and should not be discounted.

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But as the party decides who its leader should be, it must also answer the question of what its message is. It is there that the integration of the tea party and libertarians into the GOP causes so many interesting policy ripples.

This will undoubtedly play out in the 2016 GOP presidential nominating contests -- when the leader question is paramount.

But it is playing out now as well, in the fight over McConnell.

To the tea party, the question isn't so much McConnell's voting record. Instead, its argument is he should be judged by the company he keeps -- or wants to keep.

As in former Sens. Robert Bennett and Richard Lugar, both defeated by tea party primary challengers. Or Trey Grayson, who was McConnell's choice in the Kentucky Senate GOP primary ultimately won by Paul. Or Charlie Crist, a Democrat now but the choice of McConnell and the GOP establishment in the primary. To critics, all are moderates too willing to compromise with Democrats.

"I'm talking about the candidates McConnell has supported instead of the conservatives," Red State's Erick Erickson writes in his latest column urging support for McConnell's tea party challenger this year.

Another vocal and often controversial voice on the right, Ann Coulter, is a leading McConnell defender. She notes his opposition to campaign finance law changes that have helped Democrats; and his disciplined work to get every GOP senator to vote against Obamacare, which she says gives the party a much stronger 2014 midterm message.

And she notes his leadership in forcing the Obama White House to accept the forced budget cuts known as the sequester.

"Even Ronald Reagan didn't cut federal spending!" Coulter wrote in a column this week. "McConnell did -- and that was with a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in the Senate."

She laments a "right-wing mob" and "nonsensical jeremiads against McConnell on the RedState blog."

Erickson says it isn't so.

"There's no right wing mob on the march," he writes on RedState. "There's just a cleaning crew. If we don't clean up our own side, the general election voters surely will."

McConnell raised eyebrows by telling The New York Times he was confident the establishment would prevail over the tea party challengers and their conservative funding sources, vowing to "crush them everywhere."

"Crush or be crushed," was Erickson's retort.

We will see if there is a clear winner in this round as the 2014 primaries play out, and then as we watch the November 2014 results.

Whatever the outcome, some of these tensions will carry over into the 2016 nominating contest. Sometimes, as both Reagan and Clinton proved, these internal tensions can only be settled, or at least more neatly managed, by winning the White House.

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