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Violating the 11th Commandment

Republican presidential candidates haven't hesitated to speak ill of their fellow hopefuls.

Elections are supposed to offer a choice between continuity and change. Happy with the way things are going? Vote for the party in power.

Americans are not happy with the way things are going. Only 22 percent say that the country is headed in the right direction, according to April's NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. That's the lowest level since President Bush's father was in office. He got fired. The current President Bush can't run again, and his vice president isn't running. Are any Bush Republicans running in 2008?

In his speech announcing his White House bid on April 25, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., never mentioned Bush's name. But his criticism of the president's record was unmistakable. "When Americans confront a catastrophe, natural or man-made, they have a right to expect basic competence from their government," McCain said in New Hampshire.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney didn't sound too complimentary, either, when he charged, "The halls of government are clogged with petty politics and stuffed with peddlers of influence." Romney is running for the GOP nomination as a Washington outsider who can bring the skills of a private-sector chief executive to government. That's the kind of campaign that Bush ran in 2000. "It is time for innovation and transformation in Washington," Romney said when he announced his candidacy.

McCain may have the biggest Bush problem, because of his support for the president's troop buildup in Iraq. Republican strategist Ed Rollins said of McCain on CNN, "He's running for a third Bush term. And this country is not going to give Bush a third term—with John McCain or anybody else." That is why McCain used his announcement remarks to try to distance himself from Bush's record. "We all know the war in Iraq has not gone well," McCain said. "We have made mistakes, and we have paid grievously for them."

Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani is trying to replicate not the Bush of 2000 who won a disputed election, or the Bush of 2006 who led his party to defeat, but the Bush of 2004. "I've been dealing with terrorism before people even knew about it, going back to the 1970s," Giuliani said on April 22. He even resurrected charges that the Bush campaign used against Democrats in 2004. "If one of them gets elected," Giuliani said, "we're going on the defense." Rerunning the 2004 election seems like a good idea to rank-and-file Republicans: Giuliani is the GOP front-runner.

Ronald Reagan's 11th commandment said, "Thou shalt not speak ill of any fellow Republican." But this year, the Democrats are the candidates refusing to speak ill of one another. Asked whether there was a winner on the stage at the April 26 Democratic debate, Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware said, "I'm looking at a bunch of winners right here.... And whoever wishes for Hillary is making a big mistake on the Republican side."

Republican candidates, however, have been hastening to speak ill of their fellows. Like this from Jim Gilmore, a former governor of Virginia and former chairman of the Republican National Committee: "Governor Romney's views have been moderate to liberal in the Northeast, and it's all on videotape. Now he's trying to shift to being a conservative." At a Republican dinner in Iowa last month, Gilmore took on his party's front-runners collectively, saying, "Rudy McRomney is not a conservative." Romney's response? He told the Associated Press, "Everybody in this race that I know has changed their mind on certain positions."

Wags say that after Democrats lose an election, they form a circular firing squad. Last year, Republicans lost, so it's their turn to fire on one another. Conservatives argue that Republicans lost because they veered from their conservative principles on the deficit and other issues. McCain made the deficit part of his criticism of Bush: "Government spends more money today than ever before."

Conservatives find all of the top-tier Republican candidates—Giuliani, McCain, and Romney—suspect, and they fear they are losing their hard-won influence in the Republican Party. "We're very concerned as to whether or not, as a conservative movement, we will be the driving political force in the '08 election cycle," said candidate Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas.

Bush is very unpopular. Conservatives say it's not because he's a conservative—it's because his administration has wandered away from conservative principles.