GOP would like to see another Reagan running


PHILADELPHIA -- The Republicans who gathered here this weekend were, to no one's surprise, a giddy lot. They hold both houses of Congress, and the opinion polls say the voters like what they are doing and have serious doubts about President Clinton.

Republicans are winning most special elections -- 19 of 28 for state legislative seats so far this year -- and attracting Democratic defectors at both the state and national level. The money is pouring in -- contributions from 547,000 donors in the last six months. As Haley Barbour, the party's national chairman, likes to say, "We continue to have the wind at our back."

But behind this facade of ebullience at the Republican National Committee meeting here, there is some distinct unease about the field of candidates for the party's presidential nomination.

As a prominent state party leader from the Midwest, speaking privately, put it, "There's nobody out there who can fire up the grass roots."

To some degree, this is a predictable function of the fact that most voters won't get interested in the campaign for several months at the earliest. And in many states, Republican leaders are focused on their own concerns.

In Alabama, for example, the party's political director, Len Gavin, is optimistic about winning the Senate seat being vacated by Democrat Howell Heflin. With Sen. Richard Shelby having changed parties, that would give the Republicans both seats as well as the governorship they won last fall. So the interest in presidential candidates is muted.

But the unease among Republican activists is based on more than the calendar. It is also clear that there are still unresolved doubts about all the candidates, including the front-running Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.

"I like Bob," a prominent Ohio Republican said, "but I wonder what his message is."

Many of these Republican regulars yearn for another Ronald Reagan, someone who could fire up the troops with his own optimism and verve. Some of them wish Jack Kemp, the former congressman and Bush administration Cabinet secretary, had decided to run. "He had a message; that was the least you could say," one veteran activist said.

The doubts about the field are varied. There is, of course, the fear that Dole will self-destruct by displaying the harsh anger that compromised him in 1988. And there is no obvious substitute in the wings.

The conventional wisdom among the Republicans here was that Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas is struggling to find a voice that will appeal to voters despite all the money he has raised. There are obvious doubts about whether Gov. Pete Wilson of California can overcome his support for abortion rights and other moderate positions on social questions.

Conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan is making a splash right now, largely because he seems to be making at least marginal gains in the opinion polls at the expense of Gramm. But Republican regulars still see him as too much of an extremist for the party to anoint.

Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee, has stirred some interest with the vigor and aggressiveness of his campaign but has not yet become seen as a convincing challenger to Dole. Neither Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana nor Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is taken seriously at this stage.

Among the most astute politicians here, there is also concern about how the party will deal with the cultural issues -- most notably abortion rights -- that caused such obvious divisions three years ago.

National Chairman Barbour argues that the party will handle these issues as it did in 1994 -- that is, by electing Republicans on both sides of the abortion issue. Pennsylvania, he pointed out, now has one senator strongly in favor of abortion rights, Specter, and one just as opposed, Rick Santorum.

But that doesn't answer questions about what the party platform will say or whether the religious right will rebel if a supporter of abortion rights is given a place on the national ticket.

Barbour is, of course, bullish on the options for 1996. "This is the strongest field, the most qualified field to ever seek a party's nomination," he said.

That may be true if you judge the candidates by their resumes. But political people such as the Republicans who gathered here would be happier if one of them could provide the magic of another Ronald Reagan.

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