WASHINGTON — Fred Thompson, who proposes to be what Republicans need to overcome their malaise, may himself be part of the problem.

And the problem is that conservatism as a philosophy no longer produces ready-made answers to the quandaries that face the country or the voters. Republicans do not need to debate who is conservative enough. They need to argue about what conservatism is.

The candidate who stands to make the most of that opportunity now is former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, not Thompson — and Thompson’s decision to run has made Giuliani’s life easier.

By referring in his online announcement speech this week to the glory days of the 1994 Republican landslide, Thompson suggested that he hopes to sweep through the primaries with bows to a heroic past and calls to keep the old faith alive.

But his rivals were already moving past him at the New Hampshire debate on Wednesday that Thompson skipped. The substantive exchange, broadcast on Fox News, made clear that the Republican Party, from its leadership to its base, is divided on many of the hardest issues. All the candidates spoke in the name of conservatism while moving in sharply different directions. They split on immigration, on Iraq, on abortion, on the meaning of “family values” and on how firmly they were willing to commit to tax cuts.

Thompson is joining the fray when rank-and-file Republicans are demanding increasing specificity from those seeking their votes. A great smile, a pickup truck and lofty anti-Washington sermons were ideal for 1994. They won’t be enough in this period of conservative redefinition.

Moreover, with Thompson poised to splinter votes at the right end of the spectrum, Giuliani is increasingly highlighting his role as the more moderate candidate in this batch. There may now be enough relatively middle-of-the-road votes in the Republican primary electorate for Giuliani to sneak past rivals more interested than he is in ideological purity.

This spells trouble for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, who up to now has run the tactically smartest Republican campaign. Thompson waited long enough to let Romney get off the ground, but not so long that he allowed Romney to unite the Republican right against Giuliani. “The longer this race goes on without a consensus conservative candidacy developing,” said Tony Fabrizio, a neutral Republican pollster, “the more comfortable Rudy Giuliani is.” Thompson and Romney now threaten each other.

And by speaking warmly of John McCain, Giuliani is already laying the groundwork for picking up the Arizona senator’s supporters should his rival falter early. McCain’s backers tend not to be fire-breathing conservatives, and McCain and Giuliani were rather harmonious in their positions Wednesday on taxes and immigration.

Gone was Giuliani’s hesitancy about his comparative social liberalism. When Romney went after Giuliani for allegedly welcoming illegal immigrants in New York City, Giuliani did not back down. He defended himself by saying that as mayor, he put practicality — “sensible policies” — over ideology. Because he couldn’t solve the problem of illegal immigrants, Giuliani said, his goal was to fight crime and work with the immigrant community to do so.

And in response to a pointed question about his messy family life, Giuliani echoed arguments once made by Bill Clinton’s supporters, that “any issues in my private life do not affect my public performance.” He won applause for that.

What strikes Fabrizio, who completed a detailed study of the Republican Party earlier this summer, is that Giuliani is winning a fifth of the voters even in the socially conservative group the pollster labels “moralists.” And when Republicans as a whole are asked if the party had “spent too much time focusing on moral issues such as abortion and gay marriage and should instead be spending time focusing on economic issues such as taxes and government spending,” 53 percent said yes — a significant constituency for Giuliani to draw upon.

Republicans, says Fabrizio, who conducted a similar study a decade ago, are more conservative than ever but in ways more complicated than many appreciate.

That will make Thompson’s effort to become the Man for All Conservatives much more difficult. And Mickey Edwards, a former Republican congressman whose book “Reclaiming Conservatism” will be published next spring, says that providing the backdrop for the contest is a conservative “awakening that we completely lost our way.”

This means that making conservatives feel good will not be enough for Fred Thompson. He needs to show where he will lead a movement shrewd enough to know that it is now in the wilderness.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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