GOP without front-runner is in unaccustomed spot


LOS ANGELES -- To the surprise of absolutely no one, there was a small parade of potential presidential candidates at the meeting of the Republican National Committee here over the weekend -- Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas, former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney, Gov. Pete Wilson of California and Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts and, of course, Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole.

What was most striking about the meeting, however, was the pronounced lack of interest in presidential candidates at such a gathering of political activists. If there was any wild enthusiasm for any of these potential candidates, it was not visible to the naked eye.

To some extent, this was a reflection of the tight focus of Republicans on the 1994 mid-term election campaign in which they expect to score heavily. Both publicly and privately, these party leaders were preoccupied with what they hope to accomplish Nov. 8 as a prelude to defeating President Clinton two years later.

There also was a recognition that the days of the marathon campaign may have passed. Politics is an imitative business, and for a generation candidates in both parties were learning the lesson of Jimmy Carter -- that is, that it is never too early to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign.

But George Bush won the Republican nomination in 1988 and Bill Clinton the Democratic nomination in 1992 largely on what they did in the final weeks before the primaries, not 18 months in advance.

The most telling factor in the lack of presidential campaign maneuvering here, however, was something quite different -- an impossible-to-measure but genuine question among Republicans about whether there is anyone in their large field of would-be candidates who can evoke the kind of enthusiasm that, for example, Ronald Reagan attracted before the 1980 campaign.

On the record, Republican leaders insist they have a list of possibilities who could defeat the Democratic incumbent -- the five who showed up here plus, at a minimum, Jack Kemp, Dan Quayle, Lamar Alexander and Bill Bennett.

But privately, party veterans have doubts about each of these possibilities and about the ability of the party machinery to nominate a candidate without coming apart.

The questions about each of the candidates are obvious. Dole is the obvious morning line favorite, but can he control his darker impulses as a candidate? Kemp has had some enthusiastic backing in the past, but does he still have the drive to succeed? Cheney is almost universally respected within the party, but are his credentials on national security policy relevant?

Bennett is a darling of the religious right, but can his preachy emphasis on "family values" appeal to a majority of Republicans in primaries?

Alexander's campaign is the most advanced, but will his definition of his conservative credentials prove convincing to the far right?

Wilson, Weld or both could be political celebrities if they win re-election this fall, but is it possible for a candidate who supports abortion rights to be nominated by the Republican Party these days?

To some extent, the reservations about the candidates are no different from those any party out of power harbors about its potential nominees.

At this point in the electoral cycle four years ago, Democrats were wondering about Al Gore, Dick Gephardt, Bill Bradley and Mario Cuomo, none of whom even ran. By contrast, since 1964 the Republicans have become accustomed to having clearly established front-runners -- Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan and George Bush.

History aside, the Republican Party is living today with unpleasant memories of its Houston convention two years ago and a recognition that it has not yet reconciled the differences between traditional Republican conservatives focused on such issues as taxes and crime and the remarkably effective newcomers from the religious right who are much more centered on what they see as questions of morality.

In their sessions here, Republicans danced around the abortion issue and talked predictably about how the party could accommodate those who differ on many questions. What was clearly lacking, nonetheless, was any consensus -- tentative though it might be -- on which if any of their potential candidates could accommodate those differences and still be elected in 1996.

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