WASHINGTON -- After every election, says David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, "the losing party always has an obituary written over it." While this year is no exception, there is a notable shortage of crepe-hanging among prominent Republicans as they assess Tuesday's results beyond President Bush's loss.
Mr. Keene points to a party that basically held its own in the congressional elections and made gains in state legislatures as evidence that reports of the GOP's demise are greatly exaggerated.
Another prominent conservative, Paul Weyrich, head of the Free Congress Foundation, agrees, suggesting that "the problem was much more at the top of the ticket" -- Mr. Bush himself.
Rather than deep depression over the loss of the White House, in fact, the post-election mood among many Republican leaders is one of writing off the Bush loss as an unhappy aberration -- and looking ahead to opportunities to fill the leadership vacuum in the party created by the loss.
Many leading Republicans foresee a bitter fight for party control, but without a serious dispute over conservative ideology. The contending factions, they say, will include traditional conservative Republicans, faithful advocates of supply-side economics, the religious right concerned more with social than with economic issues and disciples of Ronald Reagan seeking to resurrect the Reagan Revolution.
The first battleground could be over the choice of a Republican national chairman to replace Bush loyalist Richard N. Bond, who will step down at the next Republican National Committee meeting in January -- before being pushed.
Already, several prominent Republicans are expressing interest in the job, including Charles Black, former political director of the Reagan White House and the RNC. The conservative Mr. Black ran Jack F. Kemp's 1988 campaign for the GOP presidential nomination and played the good soldier this year as a spokesman for the Bush campaign.
Others said to be considering the race for the party leadership are retiring Rep. Vin Weber of Minnesota, another Kemp ally; Secretary of Labor Lynn Martin, a leading Bush campaign surrogate; Haley Barbour, a national committeeman from Mississippi and sometimes television analyst; Pete du Pont, former Delaware governor and 1988 presidential candidate; Spencer Abraham, a former White House political aide and Michigan party chairman; and a number of current state party chairmen.
The contest for national party chairman after a presidential election is always viewed by many as the opening shot of the next presidential campaign. But Roger Stone, another conservative political consultant formerly allied with Mr. Kemp, says he doesn't believe this one will be "a presidential proxy war" with prospective 1996 Republican presidential hopefuls seeking to place a loyalist in the job.
Nevertheless, speculation has started, as it always does within a party that has just lost a presidential election, about which party figures with White House stars in their eyes are likely to go after the party nomination the next time around.
The consensus list is topped by Mr. Kemp; Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, who has already amassed an impressive campaign treasury; Vice President Dan Quayle; television evangelist Pat Robertson; and, surprisingly, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole, who would be 73 years old in 1996. Mr. Dole fanned the talk by moving quickly on election night to carve out the role of chief party spokesman in dealing with the Clinton administration on Capitol Hill.
Others being mentioned are columnist and television commentator Patrick J. Buchanan, who says he is going back into journalism and will write a book about his 1992 challenge to Mr. Bush; Govs. William F. Weld of Massachusetts and Pete Wilson of California; former White House anti-drug czar William J. Bennett; Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney; Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander; and Mr. du Pont.
Some Republicans also mention James A. Baker III, the former secretary of state and current White House chief of staff, but not many. The consensus here appears to be that Mr. Baker's prospects died with the defeat of his good friend George Bush and that he is bereft of the kind of political ties he would need to make a serious bid. Some mention what appeared to them to be attempts by Mr. Baker to distance himself from the Bush campaign even before it lost Tuesday.
The outlook for Mr. Quayle, the other prominent prospect most closely tied to the political fortunes of Mr. Bush, is mixed as seen by these Republican leaders. His acknowledged ability as a party fund-raiser, his dogged and loyal campaigning for the Bush-Quayle ticket this fall and his aggressive debate performance against Democratic vice presidential candidate Al
Gore all have lifted his stock in party circles.
But the comment that voters "don't think of him as presidential" is repeatedly heard. In an election night exit poll in his home state of Indiana, far fewer voters said he was qualified to be president than said the same about Mr. Gore.
From all this, however, it is clear that Republican leaders are not ready to have the last rites said over the party after Tuesday's loss of the presidency. They remember, after all, how the party bounced back from the Goldwater debacle of 1964 and the graveyard incantations after Watergate. And if the rest of the country is fed up with politics after the long campaign, the full-time practitioners of politics are merely beginning the next one.