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How extreme is too extreme?

The GOP candidates for Lite Guv are doing their best to test the hypothesis that having an R next to your name is all you need to get elected statewide in Texas, regardless of your stated positions on issues.

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The Republican candidates for lieutenant governor do not seem worried about Democratic challengers and independent voters, or particularly concerned about whether their public conversations and debates fuel the Democrats’ election-year motif of a war on women.

If they were, they would not be talking like this. You would not have seen what you saw during the debate early this week as they all raced to the conservative end of the pool, hoping to win the hearts of the Republican voters they will face in the primary election in March.

Instead, you would have seen a quartet of Republicans trying to win a primary without blowing their chances of winning over the more moderate voters who will come out in November.

If this election goes the way of other recent Republican primaries, the candidates’ first encounter will be with a small and conservative bunch. Fewer than two of every 25 Texans will be voting in the primary. General elections draw larger turnouts with different voters. The Democrats will be there, of course, along with political moderates, independents and the sometimes-engaged voters who might be drawn out by a noisy race for governor.

Judging from their responses, the Republican candidates are thinking about the first cohort and not the second. All believe, with varied degrees of enthusiasm, that creationism should be taught in public schools. All four, talking about a recent case in Fort Worth that got national attention, said state law should be rewritten to override a family’s desire to remove life support from a clinically dead woman until her child can be delivered. And each underscored his position on the issues by saying that abortions should not be allowed except when the life of the mother is in danger; that is a break from a more conventional Republican position that would allow exceptions in cases of rape and incest.

Indeed, an earlier Trib story showed just how out of touch these positions on abortion are with even their own voters.

Though it’s hard to envision given the tone of the Texas Republican Party’s primary contests so far, the GOP candidates for lieutenant governor lurched even farther right in Monday night’s debate in their collective rejection of access to abortion in instances of rape.

While defenders of abortion rights might be tempted to dismiss the candidates’ support for childbirth after rape as another sign of alleged misogyny in the Texas GOP, a plurality of Republicans surveyed in the University of Texas/Texas Tribune Poll have consistently supported permitting abortion in the case of rape, incest or a threat to the woman’s life — 41 percent in the October 2013 poll, and this after a summer of highly partisan public conflict over abortion legislation.

In that same survey, only 16 percent of Republicans (compared with 12 percent of Texans overall) said that abortion should never be permitted. This was on the low end of the typical GOP embrace of the prohibitionist position, which has fluctuated between 14 and 27 percent over the life of the poll, with the usual reading in the low 20s.

Allowing abortion only in the case of rape, incest or threat to the woman’s life has consistently been the most common GOP position, typically supported by just over 40 percent of Republicans. Support for the most permissive position on abortion was 19 percent among Republican voters in the October 2013 poll, also in a range consistent with previous results.

Overall, 78 percent of Texas Republicans believed that there were some situations in which abortion should be accessible. Each and every candidate dismissed even the most restrictive version of this position in Monday night’s debate. (Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst seemed to suggest he would have concerns about the life of the mother if she were his wife in such a situation, though he was unclear how these feelings translate into his policy position.)

The belief that pregnant rape victims should be required to bring their pregnancies to term, evident on the debate stage, seems to be more about positioning in the Republican primary than a careful reading of public opinion. And while the Tea Party remains the easy scapegoat for the GOP’s rightward push, in this case at least, our polling shows that only 13 percent of Tea Party Republicans support a complete prohibition on the procedure.

They’re pandering to a minority of a minority within their own party. I only wish someone had asked them during the debate if they’d support the death penalty for doctors who perform abortions and women who receive them. I mean, if it’s murder and all, why wouldn’t they? Clearly, there’s still space for them to move further to the right on this.

The bigger question is whether November voters are paying attention. The Observer has video of the debate in case you have the stomach for it. Jacquielynn Floyd was watching.

Monday’s televised four-candidate debate — which I bravely tied myself to a chair to watch in its entirety — seemed less like a political forum than a tribal pageant to be crowned the Truest Conservative in All the Land.

Voters hoping to be illuminated on the issues facing Texas were surely disappointed in what they got from Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and his three GOP challengers: Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and state Sen. Dan Patrick.

Their joint performance brought to mind a flock of talking myna birds — or perhaps a single monster parrot with four heads — that kept shouting out the same disjointed phrases: “Conservative leader!” “Secure the border!” “Protect life!”

All four of these candidates voiced wholehearted agreement that the corpse of a legally dead pregnant woman, Marlise Muñoz, should have been forced to continue incubating a malformed fetus — despite her own stated wishes, the pleas of her family and ultimately the decision of a state district court judge.

Each in turn agreed that creationism, an anti-science, biblical literalist explanation for the origin of life, should be routine curriculum for all Texas students — even though the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that teaching it in public schools violates the Constitution.

They declared in perfect four-part harmony that rape victims or girls molested by their own fathers should be forced to carry pregnancies to term.

They spoke darkly about the dire threat posed by alien hordes pouring across our undefended border — and they didn’t mean Canadians.

To a lot of people, this all transcends so-called extremism. It’s crazy talk.

Funny how respect for the Constitution only extends to things they agree with, isn’t it? Lisa Falkenberg was also watching.

As I watched that debate among four Republican lieutenant governor candidates earlier this week, I couldn’t help but wonder: How on Earth did we get here? And at this rate, where in the hell are we going?

Actually, the first question isn’t a mystery. We’re here because relatively few Texans vote, thereby surrendering the political fate of our great state to the whim of Republican primary voters who make up only 5 to 7 percent of the voting-age population.

The farther right that sliver of the electorate slides, the farther out to la-la land the candidates have to go to reach them. So you get what we had in Dallas the other night.

The candidates – Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, state Sen. Dan Patrick, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, all but the last from Houston – provided political theater at its best, policy at its worst. They seem to operate in a kind of alternate universe where pragmatism is a sin, moderation is a slur and the word “conservative,” which used to stand for fiscal responsibility, personal freedom and limited government, is farce.

It would be funny if it weren’t so tragic.

Take the horrifying case of Erick Muñoz, the anguished father and husband who had to fight a Fort Worth hospital in court after it refused to remove his 14-week-pregnant, brain-dead wife from machines that kept her lungs and heart going.

The hospital cited a state law that denies life-sustaining treatment from a pregnant patient; the husband cited his wife’s wishes never to be kept breathing by machines.

The fetus itself had been deprived of oxygen after the mother’s collapse and family attorneys said the child suffered severe deformities, fluid on the brain and possible heart problems. So-called pro-lifers talk about fetal pain. This seemed more like fetal torture. It compounded the agony of Muñoz, his toddler son, and the rest of the family. That agony went on for two months before a mercifully sane judge finally ended it this week, ruling what had been obvious to many from the beginning: Marlise Muñoz was already dead.

That fact didn’t seem to matter to the Texas lieutenant governor candidates. Only Patterson even acknowledged it. Everybody seemed to agree the judge erred and the fetus should have been kept alive at all costs.

“If I had been in that judge’s shoes, I would have ruled differently,” Dewhurst said. Thank the Lord he wasn’t.

But he could be re-elected Lt. Governor, and if he’s not it will be at least in part because these extreme voters he’s desperately trying to please didn’t think he was extreme enough. The Texas Democratic Party cheekily congratulated Sen. Leticia Van de Putte for winning the debate by virtue of not being one of the crazy people on stage, but she can’t win if people don’t pay attention. Sen. Van de Putte won’t drive us into the ditch like these guys are promising to do. We need to do our part.

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