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Republican Party is big enough to fight internally

MACON, Ga. --- The main question before Republicans meeting over the weekend was how to beat President Obama without beating up themselves at the same time.

The question of federal races came up in dozens of ways, from speeches by presidential candidates such as Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich, to the choice of party officers.

Next year, only two statewide contests will be on the ballot, Republicans Stan Wise and Chuck Eaton of the Public Service Commission. So, the main focus will be on winning the new congressional seat and retaking the White House.

The speeches during the Republican State Convention almost all focused on national politics. Even the state officials found ways to turn their duties into anti-Obama crusades.

"If anyone needs to step out of the way, I suggest it's the federal government," thundered Gov. Nathan Deal, who vowed to keep fighting federal health reform and other mandates.

Helping to fuel the enthusiasm is a quote from an Obama campaign aide that Georgia would be "in play" next year as a state the president could carry. He didn't have such luck in 2008, and in 2010 the Democrats were swept from every statewide office. Still, the mere threat that national Democrats would challenge the new ruling party was enough to work into nearly every speech.

Georgia Republicans used to be able to hold their conventions in a phone booth, according to a joke that dates back to the era of phone booths.

Now, they fill up the floor of convention halls with more than 4,000 delegates and alternates.

Being drawn to politics, the partisans naturally enjoy a good political brawl. The race for party chairman provided plenty of entertainment.

The party has grown to the size where the candidates hire campaign managers, buy mailers and engage robocalling machines. That level of campaigning creates the opportunity for plenty of friction and fracturing.

Challenger Tricia Pridemore said she spent 16 months campaigning for the post and made nearly 200 campaign stops. She failed, though, to unseat Sue Everhart, who won a third term at the Macon convention.

Overshadowing the race was Gov. Nathan Deal's involvement. He backed Pridemore because she had been active in his gubernatorial campaign last year.

Many delegates objected to the governor's efforts to shape the outcome. They're fiercely proud of their party rules that give them a vote while the Democratic Party of Georgia's executive committee essentially dictates such matters to its delegates.

The governor had the party faithful applauding his red-meat lines during his convention speech when he lost the crowd by urging them to support Pridemore. The cheers from the Pridemore camp were drowned out by the boos from the Everhart supporters.

Pridemore tried to soothe any hurt feelings when she addressed the convention.

"One of the things about this convention floor, all are equal. All only have one vote, whether they are a county chairman or the governor," she said.

Such incidents are part of the growing pains of an emerging majority party.

More evidence of that was the third-place candidate for chairman, Shawn Hanley, who campaigned in favor of primary challenges for all Republicans officeholders who were once Democrats. He also railed against so-called RINOs, Republicans in Name Only, saying he wanted to keep the party true to its principles.

Clearly, some of the party agreed with him, that the Johnny-come-lately crowd was diluting the movement's purity. At least 265 of the delegates gave him their votes.

His party-switcher litmus test would have sprung on Deal and Sonny Perdue, the first GOP governor in 130 years.

The fact that only 13 percent of the delegates voted for him shows that most people recognize growth comes quicker from converts than from the birth rate. Considering the number of gray heads in the crowd and the fact that at least one-fourth of them were at their first convention means that many are themselves former Democrats.

Those recent converts helped make Republicans the majority party.

"We've come a long way, baby," Everhart said. "We are the reddest state anywhere."

But, she also offered a caution that will echo in delegates' ears throughout next year's presidential campaign. Internal squabbling could take the focus off the ultimate goal of defeating Obama, and victory could slip away.

"Seeing how fast the tide turned for Republicans, it could easily turn the other way," she said.

Walter Jones is the Atlanta bureau chief for the Morris News Service. He can be reached at, (404) 589-8424 or on Twitter @MorrisNews.

Web posted on Thursday, May 19, 2011

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