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BRODER: Primary fights can build up candidates

For Sarah Palin, with her personality and history, to tell Rush Limbaugh that Republicans should welcome primary fights within their own ranks is hardly surprising.

As much as it may pain her many critics, she also has a lot of history on her side.

Many Republicans, looking at the recent fiasco in New York's 23rd Congressional District, argue that the endorsement by Palin and her talk-radio buddies of a rigid right-winger running on the Conservative Party cost Republicans a House seat they had held for more than a century. They worry that the populist anti-establishment "rogues" like Palin will kill GOP prospects for a comeback in 2010 by backing ideologues in many other primaries and scaring off independents and moderate Republicans.

They are wasting their breath on Palin, who got to be governor of Alaska by knocking off incumbent Gov. Frank Murkowski in a Republican primary in 2006. When she told Limbaugh, "What I appreciate about the Republican Party (is) we have contested, aggressive, competitive primaries," she had that fight in mind.

Unlike Palin, most campaign managers and party chairmen hate primaries. They hate to see the money spent fighting people on the same team, and they fear the scars that may be left.

But Palin has a strong point, especially when a party has as many unsettled issues as the Republicans do these days. In such a situation, primaries are the best way to test leaders and ideas. The modern Republican Party began recovering from the many defeats of the New Deal era only in 1952, when Dwight Eisenhower, a war hero, defeated Adlai Stevenson. But before Ike could win the general election, he had to face down Robert A. Taft, the leader of the GOP congressional wing and an embodiment of conservatism. Their battle started in the New Hampshire primary and continued through bitter convention roll calls testing and finally overthrowing establishment control.

Another such fight came in 1980, after the ruin of Watergate had restored Democrats to the White House. Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush squared off, with Bush winning the first round in Iowa and Reagan forced to defend his claim in New Hampshire and in later primaries. Without those tests, Reagan would not have been the candidate who ousted Jimmy Carter.

And as recently as 2000, George W. Bush had to absorb a shellacking at the hands of John McCain in the New Hampshire primary before he was able to slug his way back in South Carolina and develop the tough tactics that he used to claw out his narrow, disputed win over Al Gore.

Against those examples of tough primary battles that preceded and prepared the winners for victory, we have the case of the 1976 struggle in which Reagan challenged President Gerald Ford for the nomination. Ford went to his grave believing that Reagan had weakened him so much that Carter could send him home. He argued that if Reagan had conceded earlier and campaigned harder for the Ford-Bob Dole ticket, the Republicans could have prevailed. But in fact, Ford's pardon of Richard Nixon and debate slip-up on Poland had as much or more to do with his defeat.

The overall pattern has been much the same in Republican primaries for governor and senator. The number of cases where a potential winner has been sabotaged by a primary contest's leftover wounds is remarkably few.

The fear among some Republican pros now is that as the GOP base has shrunk and become more monolithically conservative, ideological purity may replace broad voter appeal as the criterion for prevailing in primaries. The answer to that is to bring more people to the polls, as Eisenhower and Reagan both did.

The way to deal with Palin is not to shut her down, but to match her in appeal and effort.

E-mail nationally syndicated columnist David Broder at davidbroder@washpost.com.