WASHINGTON — The conservative vs. moderate split threatening to rupture the Republican Party played out across the airwaves Sunday, with Colin Powell and Tom Ridge denouncing shrill and judgmental voices they say are steering the GOP too far right. Karl Rove challenged Powell to lay out his vision and "back it up" by helping elect Republicans.
At stake is the GOP's status as a major party, Powell and Ridge suggested.
"I believe we should build on the base, because the nation needs two parties, two parties debating each other. But what we have to do is debate and define who we are and what we are, and not just listen to dictates that come down from the right wing of the party," said Powell, the nation's top military officer under President George H.W. Bush and later secretary of state for President George W. Bush.
Former Vice President Dick Cheney and broadcaster Rush Limbaugh have openly mocked Powell as a Republican in name only, citing his endorsement of Democrat Barack Obama over Republican John McCain in last year's presidential race.
Powell reaffirmed that he is a solid Republican and said the GOP must be more inclusive or risk giving Democrats and independents the chance to scoop up disaffected moderate Republicans.
"If we don't reach out more, the party is going to be sitting on a very, very narrow base. You can only do two things with a base. You can sit on it and watch the world go by, or you can build on the base," Powell said.
Fellow GOP moderate Ridge, a former Pennsylvania governor and homeland security secretary under George W. Bush, said if the GOP wants "to restore itself, not as a regional party, but as a national party, we have to be far less judgmental about disagreements within the party and far more judgmental about our disagreement with our friends on the other side of the aisle."
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a potential presidential candidate in 2012, insisted he didn't want to pick a fight with Cheney.
But Gingrich offered this advice: "I think Republicans are going to be very foolish if they run around deciding they're going to see how much they can purge us down to the smallest possible base."
Cheney, defense secretary when Army Gen. Powell was Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman during the Gulf War in 1991, has made clear that he would rather follow broadcaster Limbaugh than Powell into political battle over the GOP's future.
"I didn't know he was still a Republican," Cheney said of Powell in a TV interview two weeks ago.
Rove, chief political strategist for the younger Bush, took the position that "if you say you're Republican, you're Republican." But he wanted more than words from Powell.
"I don't like this thing where people -- and Powell is one of them -- who said, 'Rush Limbaugh, shut up.' We believe, as Republicans in the marketplace of ideas. Let that marketplace decide," Rove said.