Austin, Texas -- Among the small favors left in the wake of the Great Republican Victory of 1994 is the fact that President Clinton is soon to be retired as the national punching bag. For the moment -- these last two weeks -- the puffy First Talker in the White House has been replaced by the pudgy Talker of the House, Newt Gingrich, as the prime target of the chattering classes of the press, television and politics.
Better than that, the victory of the Republicans has given us all a whole new cast of characters to bang around as the press and pols go into training for the next big electoral fight: The Making of the President, 1996. Time magazine got off the first flurry of punches by making this list of contenders:
Senators Robert Dole, Phil Gramm and Arlen Specter, Governors Pete Wilson of California and William Weld of Massachusetts, former governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, former vice president Dan Quayle, former representative Jack Kemp, and former everythings James Baker and Dick Cheney -- and Mr. Gingrich, too.
And, among the mentioned, there are also Gen. Colin Powell, who may or may not be a Republican, and H. Ross Perot, contender for the Harold Stassen Chair of Distinguished and Persevering Candidacy. (Time also raises the possibility that Mr. Clinton might choose not to run or that he would be so weakened by sparringwith Republican congressional leaders that Democrats would look elsewhere, beginning with Vice President Gore and Sen. Bob Kerrey.)
It is refreshing to see some of these worthies taking a few lumps, a pleasure that was heightened for me last week by reading proof that no politician is a prophet in his own land. This evaluation of Senator Gramm of Texas, chairman and hero of the Republican Senate campaign committee, by Dave McNeely of the Austin American-Statesman, appeared in both that paper and the Dallas Morning News:
"This is a guy who makes Bob Dole look like Prince Charming. He is not liked by his colleagues. They know his main interest is himself. They don't trust him, or want to be around him. . . . I've seen no other politician who engenders as much pure hate as Gramm.
"He has perfected to an art form the hypocritical practice of voting against taxes to fund programs, but then showing up at the ribbon-cuttings to claim credit for the projects . . . Grammstanding.
"Gramm has realized for years that if he told rich people and corporate interests that they could keep most of their money, they would give some of it to him. That is why he already has $6 million in the bank. By 1996, expect it to be at several times that much."
Now isn't that more fun than reading more about whether or not Bill Clinton really means it about prayer in schools?
We might all be criticized for writing about the next election before the dust and mud of this one have settled. But, in fact, Senator Gramm and the dozen other Republicans who would be president have to start right now for at least two reasons:
* This nomination war will be fought with new rules and events that dictate an early start. There will be 1996 primary elections in the two biggest states, California and New York, in the month of March, right after the old Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.
* It will, as Mr. McNeely points out, cost fortune upon fortune to compete effectively in those four early contests -- and it is conceivable that that race will be over before the end of March.
That new schedule raises new possibilities in the Grand Old Party. Candidates such as Messrs. Wilson, Weld or Specter -- who are all, to begin with, pro-choice on abortion -- would have about as much chance as Hillary Clinton of being nominated by a Republican convention under the old rules. But the Bible-thumpers and other provincial traditionalists who pack the party's convention might just have to sit there and angrily confirm the results of the primaries in the big urban states.
In other words, the Republican nominating process could look more like the Democratic process, which has been primary-oriented for decades. And that means the Republicans might end up with a ticket of their moderates, say Governor Wilson for president and Gov. Christine Whitman of New Jersey for vice president.
Why not -- against a jerk like Phil Gramm? As Mr. McNeely concludes: "The news that Gramm will run . . . inspires both hope and fear. The hope is that this handmaiden of special interests, who poses as the champion of little, will leave the Senate and then fail in his presidential bid. The fear is that he might actually win the presidency."
9- Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.