PHILADELPHIA -- Most of the Republicans running for president showed up here last weekend to give 15-minute speeches to the party regulars at the summer meeting of the Republican National Committee. And each received, at the very least, a warm reception.
But the rhetorical star of the event was Newt Gingrich, who unburdened himself of a 45-minute peroration that was his usual blend of derisive scorn for the Clinton administration and bright ideas that sound good on first listening. The RNC members loved it.
The contrast in the reception given the speaker of the House and the candidates underlined a dilemma confronting the Republican Party as the 1996 presidential campaign begins to dominate American politics. It is one thing to indulge yourself in freewheeling rhetoric and quite another for a presidential candidate to strike a chord with the voters in primaries that lie ahead -- and still position himself as a nominee able to win the general election.
Thus, it was easy for Gingrich to capture some press attention by proposing a radical new approach to the drug problem. He would conduct a national referendum on legalizing drugs and, after legalization had been defeated as polls indicate that it would, promulgate draconian measures to "quit playing games" on the narcotics issue.
"I'm sick of being told we don't know how to do it," he said. He would prescribe the death penalty for dealers who import commercial quantities of narcotics and require users to devote themselves to public service for two days a week for a year.
In a speech to a friendly audience of conservatives, the Gingrich formula sounded dandy. But, unlike a serious presidential candidate, the speaker doesn't have to answer endless questions about just how it would work and what it would cost.
So it was no surprise that the leading candidates seemed far more concerned with juxtaposing themselves against their rivals what has become essentially a competition to emerge as a plausible alternative to the acknowledged front-runner, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.
Thus, for example, Sen. Phil Gramm of Texas talked forcefully about how uncompromising he would be on welfare reform, an obvious dig at Dole in the continuing struggle of Senate Republicans to find a formula on which they can agree. Like the Republicans of the Ronald Reagan stamp, said Gramm, he would not "walk the yellow line down the middle of the highway."
Lamar Alexander, the former governor of Tennessee presenting himself as the most outside of outsiders, reminded his fellow Republicans that the nomination is "not a thank-you for a long-serving senator" -- whom he later identified as Dole -- and "not a contest for the presidency of Washington, D.C."
Even the usually uncombative Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana managed a dig at Dole, Gramm and Gov. Pete Wilson of California by saying that candidates who had been divorced, as all three have, would "have a problem" talking about the family values issues that are all the rage in politics today.
Most of these small digs were so heavily coded it is doubtful that many primary voters would even get the message. But the point is that the Republican candidates are preoccupied these days with their own little war -- not with instant plans for solving the drug problem.
As the prime target, the front-running Dole seemed remarkably defensive. He defended the record of Senate Republicans so far this year and even confided that they may end up working into the usually sacrosanct August recess -- imagine that -- to deal with the party's legislative agenda. And if the party wants another Ronald Reagan, he said, "I'll be another Ronald Reagan. . . . Ronald Reagan provided strong leadership."
But Dole's bottom line is his history as a politician who has done it all short of the presidency. "If you want somebody who has been tested and tested and tested," he says, "take a look at our campaign."
What seemed to be most lacking in the candidates' rhetoric was what George Bush called "the vision thing" when he was accused of lacking it -- the kind of message that candidate Bill Clinton projected in 1992 as the "different kind of Democrat" who promised "change."
But such a message isn't always essential to success in presidential politics. Bush defeated Michael Dukakis in 1988 simply because he wasn't Dukakis. These Republicans may believe it will be enough in 1996 not to be Bill Clinton.