WASHINGTON -- The Republicans are playing a risky political game in coalescing against the nomination of Dr. Henry Foster of Nashville to be surgeon general.
No one would question the proposition that Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole has the clout to block the confirmation of Foster if he delivers on the threat he made the other day. He may even be able to stifle the nomination in committee, which is chaired by his colleague from Kansas, Sen. Nancy Kassebaum.
But the operative question is what price Dole might pay in terms of damage to both his presidential candidacy and the image of his party.
On the surface, the political equation in the Foster controversy seems simple enough. The Republicans never get much support from black voters anyway, so it may be argued that there is no potential loss there for either Dole or the party if the rejection of Foster were seen, as it surely would be in some quarters, as racially motivated.
And it is also true that there are currents of racism -- or at least racial resentment -- running through the electorate these days. That is obvious in the hostility toward affirmative action among whites.
But this is too narrow a view of the way politics operates. The notion that Foster might be rejected unfairly, whether or not on racial grounds, would be offensive to many white voters as well as to blacks and to many Republicans.
No one who knows Bob Dole imagines that he is operating out of racism. That never has been part of his makeup. Political reporters recall him making a strong case after the defeat of the ticket on which he ran with Gerald Ford in 1976 that the central failure of Republicans that year was the failure to reach out to more black voters.
But Dole's political motive in rejecting Foster doesn't seem much more elevated. He is obviously responding to the pressure put on him by the man he sees as his prime rival for the 1996 nomination, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas.
Gramm has been out front against the Foster nomination from the outset simply because the Tennessee physician has performed abortions in the past -- a piece of personal history that puts him beyond the pale for the religious right of the Republican Party.
Indeed, the senator from Texas seems to be the one calling the tune here in competing for those cultural conservatives. Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, also has gone on record against Foster, praising him as a good man whom he has known in the past but not the right man for this job. That is a particular stretch since the job of surgeon general is largely ceremonial and has no significant duties. The only inference any reasonable person can draw is that Alexander, too, is trying to keep pace with Gramm.
All of these Republicans have a cover story, of course. That is the complaint that Foster misled Kassebaum at the outset on the issue of how many abortions he had performed and under what && circumstances. And it is true that the White House handled the nomination with its usual clumsiness in failing to recognize the hazards of choosing an obstetrician and in failing to prepare him properly for the vetting process.
But Foster has offered reasonable explanations of the original bumbling, and there is no evidence of any smoking gun in his background that would prevent his confirmation. If the opponents of abortion rights were not in full cry, the nomination is one that would be approved in routine fashion and short order.
Instead, the prospect is for a full-scale brouhaha next month. President Clinton has said repeatedly that he is standing by the nomination of Foster. He could hardly do otherwise given his history of throwing another prominent black nominee, Lani Guinier, over the side two years ago.
What this means is that Henry Foster is going to be given his chance to tell his story in public hearings before the Kassebaum committee. And if he is a convincing witness, the Republicans and Bob Dole in particular are going to be in an awkward position. They are going to have to let the nomination go through or be accused of applying an abortion rights litmus-test dictated by the Christian Coalition. And, deservedly or not, they will be seen by many black Americans as resisting a black nominee for racial reasons.
All the smart money says Clinton is facing an uphill fight for re-election next year. But there are issues on which the Republicans can make themselves vulnerable. The Foster nomination is one of them.