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Hope for America? 

There is an off chance that the country is not going to hell after all.

If that is so, the fanaticism that captured the Republican Party and the national government for a half-dozen years and was projected to be the permanent American majority was actually only an aberration, a momentary power surrendered by a numb republic to a juvenile president after 9/11.

The evidence? Pretty slim and probably ephemeral but worth considering.

The Arkansas legislature, which ordinarily has ratified just about any nutty proposition by the religious cranks and Wal-Mart right-wingers, has shown a little restraint. The zealots waited until the last possible instant to tender some of their worst junk, like government-sanctioned football prayers and a ban on gay and lesbian adoptive and foster parents, as if they detected an unusual measure of reason in the 2007 crop of lawmakers and hoped to slide the bills by unnoticed in the moil of a session’s final days.

That optimism may quickly be proved foolish, but on a bigger canvas, how do you account for the Republican presidential race? The most liberal candidate by far and the one with the most baggage, the notorious philanderer Rudy Giuliani, is far ahead in polls of Republican voters. The other moderate, Sen. John McCain, trails the flamboyant mayor distantly.

All the fire-breathing conservatives, who now include our formerly moderate governor, barely register except for the other serial philanderer, Newt Gingrich, who sometimes reaches double figures in polls, and the turncoat moderate, Mitt Romney of Massachusetts.

The best specific evidence of a new day ironically may have been the Republican cattle show at Alexandria, Va., put on last week by the American Conservative Union and the Conservative Political Action Conference. Here was to be a confluence of religious, libertarian and traditional conservatives all in a single venue. The prevailing assumption still is that the GOP nominee will be the candidate who captures the imagination of the zealous right, so the candidates honed their conservative pitches.

It was an amazing show, first spotlighting the now largely discredited artisans of deceit — Dick Cheney, the swift boaters, Ann Coulter (the ACU had to issue a caveat after Coulter’s screed by saying that it did not condone “hate speech” — and then it heard from all the potential Republican candidates except McCain and Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, who declined).

Except for Giuliani, all the candidates sullied the good name of political pandering in an effort to outdo each other as right-wingers. Huckabee was the worst. He did not miss a single hot button with the zealots: gay marriage, abortion, Mexicans, tax cuts, government spending, a world war against religious infidels and gun-toting rights. (Huckabee claimed to be the first American governor in history to get a concealed gun permit and implied, maybe jokingly, that he was carrying heat at that very moment and that the conventioneers had better not mess with him.)

He fudged his record as governor out of recognition, claiming as his own invention the income tax cut of 1997 written and passed by Democrats and some 93 other tax cuts that Arkansas taxpayers would like to hear about. Gone was the Mike Huckabee who championed liberal social programs and educational and health rights for illegal immigrants. No one, not even the hysterical Tom Tancredo, got to Huckabee’s right on the alien issue that day, and the crowd responded with a standing ovation.

Mitt Romney was close, but the difference was that the former Massachusetts governor has acknowledged that he once held different views and he says he now sees the light. Romney once blamed Ted Kennedy for being insufficiently sympathetic to the rights of gays and lesbians. Huckabee doesn’t own up to ever changing positions.

Giuliani was sort of the undemagogue at the gathering. He said he disagreed with the crowd on some things without being specific, but that they should focus on the more important things they agreed on, like lean government and combating terrorism.

What did the true believers think of it all? Romney had invested heavily in organizing the conference and Grover Norquist had introduced him as the second coming of Ronald Reagan. Twenty-one percent said Romney was their favorite. Giuliani was second and the truest conservative, Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, was third, followed closely by Gingrich and McCain. McCain was the runaway leader in polls until he sidled up to the religious bigots like Jerry Falwell, whom he had once condemned.

Huckabee joined the archconservatives Tancredo, Rep. Duncan Hunter of California and former Virginia Gov. Jim Gilmore in the low single digits.

The common wisdom is that the strutting New York mayor’s star power will dim when millions of daffy Republican voters start thinking about his affairs, marriages, libertarian views and shady associations and that one of the consistent or late-blooming bigots will inherit the mantle.

Maybe. Maybe not. When asked if they would be more prone to vote for a candidate who was in the mold of George W. Bush, the truest believer of them all, 3 percent said yes.

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