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Originally published Friday, March 30, 2012 at 6:22 PM

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A war hero and moderate gets shoved aside by his party, the GOP

The San Diego Republican Party has moved sharply right recently, writes David Brooks. One victim of that movement is a rising party star who is being pushed out of the way by the GOP establishment.

Syndicated columnist

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Nathan Fletcher was raised in Arkansas, played college baseball in California and enlisted in the Marines as a reserve in 1997. He saw combat in 2004, based in the Sunni Triangle in Iraq.

One day Fletcher's unit went to relieve a convoy and was, in turn, ambushed by insurgents with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and gunfire. According to his military records, the unit "attempted to break through the enemy line of resistance several times in order to relieve the convoy, each time coming under heavy, sustained fire, during which Sergeant Fletcher never wavered in his determination to engage the enemy."

As detailed in fine reporting by Craig Gustafson of The San Diego Union-Tribune, Fletcher was awarded an achievement medal with a Combat "V" for Valor.

But the war on terror is different from other wars. As an intelligence officer, Fletcher didn't spend most of his time, in Iraq and later around Somalia, shooting at a faraway enemy. He spent it meeting with locals, providing city services, establishing relationships with people completely unlike himself.

He was good at it. In a 2006 report, his commanding officer wrote that Fletcher "is one of the finest Marines, regardless of rank, I have worked with in over 25 years of service to our corps."

Fletcher already had political ambitions while he was in the Marines. But he came back from his 10 years in the corps with other attributes. First, survivor's guilt. The fact that he had survived while others did not gave him a strong sense that he should make the rest of his life count for something. Second, he absorbed the military's spirit of can-do pragmatism. Third, he is impatient with military metaphors applied to politics.

He ran for the California State Legislature and won. His legislative career was an extension of his intelligence work — meeting with people unlike himself and trying to strike arrangements. He championed a bipartisan law rewriting the state's sex crimes to make them consistent with the latest research.

He was one of very few Republicans willing to negotiate with Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, over a tax reform plan. He gave an impassioned speech against "don't ask, don't tell." He became friends with the Democratic speaker.

Fletcher is tall, good-looking, smart, polished (maybe too much so) and moderate. An article in The Sacramento Bee touted him as a rising Republican star, the kind of Republican who could get elected statewide. It didn't hurt that his wife has worked for George W. Bush and other Republicans.

The next step was obvious: Run for mayor of San Diego. The city has a tradition of electing pragmatic center-right Republicans. Fletcher ran on some conservative ideas — pension reform and fiscal conservatism — and some less conventionally conservative ones — open space, bike paths and environmental policies. He's also for comprehensive immigration reform.

He was endorsed by Paul Jacobs, the chairman and chief executive of Qualcomm. Both Mitt and Ann Romney, who have a place in San Diego, maxed out to his campaign, giving $500 each.

But as Scott Lewis of voiceofsandiego.org has detailed, the San Diego Republican Party has moved sharply right recently. A group of insurgents has toppled the old city establishment. As Lewis wrote, "The Republican Party has gone through a fantastically effective effort to enforce conformity around its principles."

The GOP central committee and the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, an activist group, spurned Fletcher in the mayor's race, endorsing the more orthodox conservative, Councilman Carl DeMaio. The councilman already had much higher name identification, and this endorsement gives him a huge structural advantage. Individual candidates can only raise money in $500 chunks, but a party can raise unlimited money and funnel it to the candidate of its choice.

On Wednesday, in a move reflecting long-term disillusionment and in an effort to shake up the campaign, Fletcher said he is leaving the Republican Party. He is becoming an independent. In his announcement video, he railed against the strategy he saw in both parties — the unwillingness to negotiate with the other side to keep it from being able to take credit for any accomplishment.

He declared, "I believe it's more important to solve a problem than to preserve that problem to use on a campaign. I am willing to work or share or give all the credit to someone if the idea is good. I don't believe we have to treat people we disagree with as an enemy. I've fought in a war. I have seen the enemy. We don't have enemies in our political environment here."

Fletcher is the decided underdog in the June 5 voting. But he represents a nationally important test case. Can the Iraq and Afghanistan veterans, who were trained to be ruthlessly pragmatic, find a home in either political party? Can center-right moderates find a home in the GOP, even in coastal California? As the two parties become more insular, is it possible to mount an independent alternative?

David Brooks is a regular columnist for The New York Times.

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