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A clear GOP front-runner for '96 is yet to emerge


WASHINGTON -- Despite President Clinton's rather rocky road through 1993, which has a goodly number of Republicans breathing hard about their prospects for retaking the White House in 1996, nothing much seems to have happened through Clinton's first period in the Oval Office to clarify the GOP presidential outlook for the '96 race.

Conversations with a number of leading party figures yield the opinion that while the party's fortunes appear to be on the rise again, no one potential standard-bearer has benefited particularly, either as a result of Clinton's low standing in the polls or the actions of that prospect in his own behalf.

"A lot of Republicans spend time wishing and yearning for another Reagan," says Bill Kristol, former chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle and now head of a new GOP think tank. "There isn't one."

By general agreement, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole has been a winner as the most visible and most heavily reported upon Republican in the country. His party leadership in the Senate, demonstrated in the solid GOP front against Clinton's deficit-reduction bill, the strong support for the Republican-initiated North American Free Trade Agreement and the GOP filibuster that killed the president's job-stimulus fTC package, has cemented his reputation as a legislative craftsman.

But that reputation was not enough to deliver the party's presidential nomination to him in 1980 or again in 1988, and he still labors under the burden of being seen as too much a legislative creature -- and an aging and often cranky one at that. Dole's commitment and energy at age 70, however, keep him in the forefront of the early speculation about 1996. Those who talk to him regularly say he sounds more convinced with every passing day to make one more try. One intimate says only Republican recapture of the Senate next year, which would restore him as majority leader, is likely to keep him out of the '96 race.

Listed in the first tier of prospects by these party insiders along with Dole is Jack Kemp, busy on the pay-for-palaver circuit since ending his tour as the Bush administration's secretary of housing and urban development. Kemp weathered the Bush incumbency about as well politically as anyone, in large part as a result of his well-publicized advocacy of reaching out to blacks and other minorities oft-neglected by his party.

Ironically, some party conservatives are suggesting that the man regarded a decade or so as Mr. Conservative, the darling of the supply-siders and tax-cutters, would have an easier time now getting elected than nominated -- a complete turnaround of the political prognosis on him in the 1970s.

Kemp's decision the other day to form a separate political action committee as a repository of contributions for his use campaigning for other Republicans in 1994 is widely seen within the party as a belated signal to supporters and would-be supporters that in the coming year he will focus more on political activity. He has been no slouch since the 1992 election, however, campaigning for all the prominent Republican winners -- gubernatorial candidates George Allen and Christine Todd Whitman, mayoral candidates Richard Riordan and Rudolph Giuliani, senatorial candidates Paul Cloverdell and Kay Bailey Hutchison.

The other leading '96 prospects -- former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, Sen. Phil Gramm, former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander, Govs. Carroll Campbell of South Carolina and William Weld of Massachusetts -- have yet to have much public impact. And the talk about Gen. Colin Powell has been muted after a brief splash at the time of his retirement.

Added starters are not at all out of the question, the party experts say. "After 12 years in power," says David Keene, head of the American Conservative Union, "our bottleneck is uncorked, and the lesson of Clinton in 1992 is that the way to run for president is to run for it, not say, 'This is not my year' " -- as so many leading Democrats like Mario Cuomo did then.

The Bush experience of losing after hitting a peak of popularity, Keene says, should encourage more Republican candidates even if Clinton's fortunes improve between now and 1996.

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