WASHINGTON -- The new Republican hegemony in American politics has created a radically different context for the 1996 presidential campaign that is already under way, if not always visible to the naked eye.
At the most obvious level, the dimensions of the defeat suffered by the Democrats make President Clinton appear to be an
extremely vulnerable incumbent -- the kind of situation that attracts opposition candidates. As John Deardourff, a veteran Republican consultant, put it, "I'm expecting an explosion of presidential ambitions."
The results already have produced five or six more potential Republican candidates to compete for the nomination. And they have brought added attention to those already running de facto campaigns.
Since the election, both the incoming Senate majority leader, Bob Dole of Kansas, and Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas have been to Iowa, site of the first precinct caucuses in 1996. And Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a long shot, dropped into Iowa and New Hampshire to announce the formation of an "exploratory" committee to receive contributions while he prepares for the campaign.
Less obvious is the intense negotiation under way as potential candidates begin lining up the media consultants, poll-takers and campaign strategists they will need to have in place early next year.
Among Republican professionals, the consensus seems to be that the biggest winners Election Day in terms of presidential ambitions were Senators Dole and Gramm, the former because of his elevated new status, the latter because of the aggressive role he played in leading the charge against Democrats this fall.
The new factors in the equation include such impressive winners on Election Day as Govs. Pete Wilson of California, William F. Weld of Massachusetts, Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, John Engler of Michigan and possibly George V. Voinovich of Ohio, plus Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana.
The other side of that coin is that several prominent Republicans whose credentials come from the Reagan and Bush administra
tions may become seen as relics because they were not part of the 1994 revolution, although they did campaign for fellow Republicans.
That group would include former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, former Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney, former Vice President Dan Quayle and possibly former Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp.
But there is the question of how the party should present itself now that it holds power -- whether it should concentrate on reducing the role of government or, alternatively, come forward with its own programs for change.
Some Republicans are sounding cautionary notes, despite the plethora of apparent candidates. Mike Murphy, a rising star among Republican media consultants, says he fears defections from the hard anti-government line that prevailed on Election Day. "I'm worried that some of our guys are going to back off," he said.
There is also concern about whether the new Republican majority in Congress can deliver on the promises implicit in the "Contract with America" signed by 355 GOP House candidates -- and whether it should do so. "Instead of everybody running against Clinton, we're going to have to focus more on what we are doing," said Charles Black, a conservative consultant.
Some Republicans foresee tensions within the party on reading the mandate given by the electorate -- most obviously between the speaker-apparent of the House, Newt Gingrich, and Mr. Dole, who is suspected of having a secret fondness for governing. "Some of our guys are pro-government, and they're going to come out of the woodwork," Mr. Murphy said.
It is easy to envision similar tension between Senators Dole and Gramm, one of the most active of the prospective presidential candidates and far less likely than Mr. Dole to adopt the politics of accommodation. "It would be delicious to watch," said a party strategist allied with another Republican. "They're oil and water up there."
If there is an early line on the Republicans, it has been that Mr. Dole and Mr. Gramm have been the leaders, along with Lamar Alexander. The former secretary of education and Tennessee governor has the framework for an organization in place for the Iowa precinct caucuses and New Hampshire primary, which will be the first testing grounds for 1996.
But Mr. Alexander has based his campaign heavily on a proposal to cut the salaries of members of Congress and send them home for half the year -- in short, to try to establish a citizen Congress with a reduced role in Americans' lives. The notion has had a sort of atavistic appeal to conservatives who are most hostile to government. But it is unlikely to play well with Republicans now that they control the machinery.
Mr. Kemp has suffered with some Republicans because of his decision during the campaign to come out against Proposition 187 in California to cut off health, welfare and educational benefits for illegal immigrants. The position put him at odds with most Republican conservatives, some of whom already viewed Mr. Kemp with skepticism because of his longtime advocacy of broadening the base of the party to attract more blacks. "It hurts him," said Mr. Black, an ally of Mr. Kemp in the past. "He can still be a very viable first-tier candidate, but he's go to get out there pretty soon."
Mr. Gramm has used his position as Republican National Senatorial Committee chairman to build his own operation for 1996. He has made frequent trips to New Hampshire to try to lay a foundation, although he gets mixed reviews from Republicans in the state.
Some Republican strategists say Mr. Gramm's hotly aggressive style won't sell in the long run. But they also concede that he has a closer connection to the cultural conservatives -- including the religious right -- than anyone in the potential field other than Mr. Quayle.
How many of the governors, present or former, will become serious players for 1996 depends on several variables. Because his state represents so many delegates to the nominating convention and so many electoral votes, Mr. Wilson will be taken seriously despite his insistence that he doesn't plan to run. But whether a candidate who supports abortion rights, as the California governor does, can prove acceptable to the far right is not clear.
Mr. Weld has a reputation as a street-smart politician who can hold conservatives and moderates alike while dealing effectively with a Democratic legislature in Massachusetts. But, again, there is the question of how much of a role social issues, on which Mr. Weld is a moderate, play in the nominating process.
In addition to Mr. Dole and Mr. Gramm, there may be other Republican senators with plans to run -- Mr. Specter being the most visible possibility. As Sen. Ernest F. Hollings once replied when asked if he was "thinking about" running for president, "All senators think about it all the time."