Rocky’s Ghosts: Kerry Rousing G.O.P. Liberals

There are few New Yorkers with a more Republican pedigree than Theodore Roosevelt IV. His family has been synonymous with the G.O.P. for more than a century, and his great-grandfather and namesake was the nation’s 26th President. He himself is a pillar of the party, and was a featured speaker at the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

But on April 14, Mr. Roosevelt was among more than 3,000 people who attended the biggest anti-Republican bash in history: a $2,000-a-head fund-raiser at the Sheraton New York Hotel that netted a record $6.5 million for the Democratic Presidential nominee, John Kerry.

“I am a Republican, but I am distressed with the national leadership of the Republican Party,” said Mr. Roosevelt, a managing director at Lehman Brothers. He attended the event with his wife, Constance Lane Rogers, a registered Democrat and Kerry supporter. “I wanted to see what [Senator Kerry] had to say, and I thought he did a very good job,” he said.

Mr. Roosevelt was not the only Republican at the Kerry gala. Stephen Robert, the chairman of Robert Capital Management and a lifelong Republican, was granted a seat of honor at Mr. Kerry’s table alongside Democratic stalwarts like Ambassador Carl Spielvogel and former Clinton adviser Peter Stamos, in recognition of the more than $100,000 he raised for the event. Ari Kopelman, the chief executive of Chanel and another Republican stalwart, held court at his table just a few feet away. Bruce Rabb, a former Nixon aide whose father, Maxwell Rabb, served in the Eisenhower administration, took several tables. So did former Republican strategist Tanya Melich and investor Clifton Roberts. When Senator Kerry’s finance chairman, Hassan Nemazee, delivered the evening’s opening address, he recognized all these G.O.P. converts and many more, saying, “We are united tonight: Democrats, independents and, yes, Republicans.”

Since Mr. Kerry became the de facto Democratic Presidential nominee on March 2, many New York Republicans representing what is left of the Rockefeller wing of the party have approached the Democrat’s staff, advisers and fund-raising team, offering everything from financial backing to campaign advice to moral support. Some have decided to take a visible role, like Mr. Robert and Mr. Kopelman, but many have asked to keep a low profile. The defections have been noteworthy enough that Mr. Kerry’s New York fund-raising team is launching a group called Republicans for Kerry-a venture that Mr. Kopelman and others are helping to put together.

“I would never have thought that I was going to work for a Democratic candidate, but this administration has moved so far to the right that it really hasn’t left a lot of room for moderate Republicans,” said Mr. Robert, who began raising money for Mr. Kerry shortly before the primaries and said he might assume an advisory role as well.

“There have never been so many Republican New Yorkers who have approached me about supporting a Democratic candidate,” said Robert Zimmerman, a member of Mr. Kerry’s finance team and a Democratic National Committeeman. “I cannot recall seeing this number of Republicans who are active in community life and in the finance and business world in the Clinton or Gore campaigns.”

Many of the defectors are uncomfortable with what they believe is the administration’s lurch to the right. As the White House has piled up record deficits, embraced a conservative social agenda and spurned multilateral foreign policy, many Northeastern moderates have felt powerless.

“There’s been little given to [moderate Republicans] during the course of this administration that gives them hope that there’s a place for them in the party or in the Bush administration,” said political consultant Rick Davis, who directed John McCain’s Presidential bid against George W. Bush in 2000.

For many moderate Republicans, disillusionment with the administration has centered either on its handling of the economy or the war on Iraq, with social issues cropping up from time to time as well.

“The environment is very, very important to me,” said Mr. Roosevelt, whose great-grandfather was a noted conservationist. “But foreign policy is also very much of a concern. I think T.R. phrased it very well: ‘Speak softly and carry a big stick.’ This administration carries a big stick and doesn’t bother to speak. But I think Kerry understands the need to have both and to use both.” (For the record, Mr. Roosevelt said that he hasn’t decided whether or not he will vote for

Mr. Kerry.)

And then, of course, there is the economy-or what Mr. Roosevelt described as “the willingness [of the administration] to incur budget

deficits without having a realistic plan of how are we going to deal with

these deficits.”

The red ink spilled in President Bush’s budgets has caught the attention of more than a few deficit hawks, the most prominent being Pete Peterson, who served as Richard Nixon’s Commerce Secretary and currently is chairman of the Blackstone Group. Mr. Peterson declined to be interviewed for this article, but last June he wrote a scathing rebuke of his party’s handling of the economy in The New York Times Magazine . “Since 2001 … the [Republican] party has ascended to a new level of fiscal irresponsibility,” he wrote. “For the first time ever, a Republican leadership in complete control of our national government is advocating a huge and virtually endless policy of debt creation …. “

Since the article appeared, Mr. Peterson has given $2,000 contributions to both Wesley Clark and John Kerry-as well as to Mr. Bush-and he has been seen at a number of Democratic gatherings, most recently at an intimate reception for Mr. Kerry and his top New York fund-raisers at Hassan Nemazee’s Park Avenue apartment. While Mr. Peterson is not himself raising money for the Kerry campaign, he is nonetheless “helping out” in other ways, several campaign sources said.

A Larger Trend?

Whether or not these defections and potential defections signal a larger trend remains to be seen. It is unclear how far the disillusionment spreads beyond the narrow corridors of the Northeast. Though some polls indicate that Mr. Bush is losing favor throughout the country, other reports suggest that he is firing up the swaths of conservatives who sat out the 2000 election because they believed Mr. Bush sounded too much like a centrist.

“The demographic of a Republican in the South and the West is very different than in the East, and Southern cultural conservatives like what they’re hearing out of [President Bush],” said Mr. Davis, the G.O.P. strategist. “You’re probably never going to see Kerry go to South Carolina, Georgia, the panhandle of Florida, Louisiana, and have a group of Republicans attend an event. The only other place that he could maybe leverage this is in California.”

Stephen Moore, the president of the conservative Club for Growth, went even further. “Anybody who would endorse John Kerry for President is hardly a Republican,” he said, “because Kerry is just really wacko-he’s a left-winger.” Mr. Moore and the Club for Growth have been in a protracted battle with moderate Republicans for the soul of the party. “I think a lot of people would say: ‘Wayward brother, go your own way,’” he continued. “I don’t think anybody would see this as a great loss to the party.”

Still, the rumblings among moderate Republicans have some G.O.P. strategists worried. As Mr. Bush pulls further to the right in an effort to court conservative voters-Karl Rove’s tactic for winning the popular vote this time around-these strategists fear that the party’s center will become even more alienated. And now that Mr. Kerry has begun sounding a decidedly centrist note, they worry that a growing number of moderates will feel like they have a real alternative.

“It’s too soon to tell, but I would say there is great potential for [a larger movement of Kerry Republicans] if Bush continues a campaign of partisan polarization,” said Mr. Davis. “I think it portends a very difficult time for our party if, win or lose, this is how we run the campaign, and all we’re left with is a very conservative base.”