An evolving GOP approach to family values?

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ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) -- Dan Quayle struck a nerve in 1992 when he went after the TV series "Murphy Brown" by saying its depiction of a single mother was irresponsible and set a bad example for America. The Republican vice president said the fictional character was "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another `lifestyle choice.'"

The ensuing brouhaha helped Republicans sharpen a "family values" agenda that appealed to the Christian right and carried the party through a half-dozen congressional elections. Contrast that with the GOP reaction to news that Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's unmarried 17-year-old daughter was five months pregnant.

"Show me a family that hasn't had some problems. Bottom line is, everybody has issues in their families," Arizona Sen. Jon Kyl said Tuesday. "Life happens," said McCain spokesman Steve Schmidt. Others echoed the sentiments, with former McCain rival Mitt Romney saying that "kids don't always do everything we'd like them to do."

Perhaps the most extraordinary comment came from John McCain's closest adviser and confidante, Mark Salter. Asked his reaction to the Palin situation, he said, simply, "An American family."

Which, of course, could mean just about anything. And when it comes to the Republican Party, that's precisely the point.

It was all about politics, of course. But behind it, the Republican reaction to Bristol Palin's pregnancy hints at how much the world has changed in 16 years. That the vagaries of a candidate's family life - even salacious ones - are treated by the GOP spin machine as just another domestic bump may be politically predictable, but it's also a notable cultural moment.

Somewhere along the way, apparently, appearing nonjudgmental became a Republican Party talking point.

"You have to be inclusive. These are realities. It's a reality check of what human life is all about," said Dorothy Olmos, 49, of Houston, a Republican candidate for Texas' statehouse who gave birth to her first child after becoming pregnant at 16.

The Palin family situation, which transformed a teenager's deeply personal conundrum into a high-stakes political drama, highlights two fundamental tensions that are often at odds in American politics - particularly the Republican kind.

On one side is the desire for candidates with life experiences that can inform their governing, and on the other the hunger for an unsullied clean slate to wipe away the well-smudged blackboards of the past.

The human being, though, is never a tabula rasa. The parties say they want authentic, but there's one niggling problem: Real things happen to real people. That's something that the GOP, with its McCain-fueled message of pragmatism over doctrine, apparently sees as an opening this week.

"All of society has changed somewhat," said Tony Culver, 60, a delegate from Angola, Ind., sitting on the convention floor Tuesday. "Everybody knows a family or friend that has had some problems in their life. People are a little more tolerant nowadays."

Perhaps - particularly with the latest generation of Americans. But in offering a moderate, tolerant, empathetic response, Republican leaders are straddling a fine line between playing to their base and conveying a progressiveness they hope will entice centrists into the McCain camp.

As usual, the GOP read of the culture is highly calibrated.

Tom Brogan, a political scientist at Albright College in Reading, Pa., sees some subtle maneuvering afoot. He says Republicans, in general, still adhere to the biblical notion of "condemn the sin, not the sinner." And even though party faithful have not criticized Bristol Palin for her actions, Brogan believes that's because "it's a juvenile so we're not going to talk about it."

"There is a way that the politicians can play this to their constituency and get away with it," Brogan says.

"You can finesse it politically by ... saying, `Well, this is a family and this happens, and we can't condemn the family,'" he says. "But they're not going to come out and say, `Well, premarital sex is approved.'"

In America, of course, debates about sex often mask debates about abortion. Kris Miccio, who teaches family law at the University of Denver, wonders how a party that opposes abortion rights can invoke a leave-this-family-alone mantra on a reproductive issue.

"The Republicans are saying this is a private family decision, but they don't accord the same privacy if a woman does not choose to carry a fetus to term," Miccio says. "If it's a private decision for the Palin family, it's a private decision for any family."

Murphy Brown, as we know, didn't really exist. And though Quayle took some flak from all sides after his statements, he benefited from taking potshots at a target that couldn't fight back. Bristol Palin, though, is a real person who happened to be thrown into the vortex of something she never could have predicted.

And on Wednesday night, she and her husband-to-be, Levi Johnston, will appear before Republican delegates in a spotlight beyond their dreams and, probably, their nightmares. Odds are they will be applauded loudly and warmly by an arena full of people who - officially, at least - oppose the very situation they're in.

These are realities. Everybody has issues. Life, indeed, happens.