First Congress, Now the White House?

Article excerpt

With a short primary season, the Republican presidential sweepstakes begins sooner than ever. Several candidates hope to capitalize on President Clinton's sagging popularity, but their differences reveal the fault lines that could shake up the GOP and derail the momentum it built in 1994.

For the Republican Party, these are the best of times -- and the most uncertain of times. The upside is obvious. Last November, the GOP scored a remarkable midterm victory and gained control of Congress for the first time in four decades. Not a single GOP incumbent -- senator, representative or governor -- was turned out of office.

Since then, House Republicans, adapting quickly to the novelty of wielding power, have impressed even their critics with their cohesiveness in passing their "Contract With America." But what really raises GOP spirits - at least among the growing number of Republicans with visions of the Oval Office dancing in their heads -- is the tantalizing vulnerability of President Clinton.

Beset by scandals and criticized widely for lack of leadership, Clinton has drawn a negative rating of 54 percent in recent polls, lagging behind Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas. That means the 1996 presidential election will be a slugfest. Top GOP figures from Phil Gramm of Texas to political commentator Pat Buchanan are vying for the Republican nomination in a field that may include another half-dozen candidates.

GOP circles are not entirely euphoric. Conservative activists -- the shock troops of GOP campaigns -- are "not as engaged in presidential politics at this point as one might have expected," says American Conservative Union Chairman David Keene. Their attention still is focused on Speaker Newt Gingrich and House Republicans rather than the presidential wannabes. And as congressional victories mount, conservatives are sensing for the first time that "something might get done."

And that's shaping how the candidates are presenting themselves. Whoever wins the nomination will have to be in sync with the antigovernment views of congressional Republicans. And the candidate will need "to lay out a plan on how to downsize and restructure the federal government and devolve power to the states," says Texas Republican Chairman Tom Pauken. The candidate also will need to "articulate a vision of hope" to go along with the call for reduced government. Pauken, author of the recently published memoir, The Thirty Years War, says this is the moment Republicans have been waiting for to create a "vision of an opportunity society" to oppose the "policies of big government and liberalism which have been driving the policy process for the last 30 years."

The road to the "opportunity society" will be filled with pitfalls. Even as they look forward to challenging Clinton, Republicans are struggling to solidify their own role in the new political environment. While congressional Republicans seem to have united around a conservative economic agenda, social and cultural issues are likely to draw more attention in the presidential campaign as candidates stake out their political turf. The divisions are familiar: Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is centering his campaign on his support of abortion rights, for example, while Buchanan is promoting himself as an advocate of economic nationalism.

Some analysts, however, discount the threat of a rift in the GOR "I don't think the party is in any great danger of spreading apart"' says syndicated columnist William Rusher, author of The Rise of the Right, who points out that issues such as abortion have failed to create floor fights at previous conventions.

The unpredictable nature of the electorate may be more significant than the issues anyway, since the public dissatisfaction that led to the overthrow of Democratic rule on Capitol Hill easily could turn against the GOP "If the Republican Party does not deliver, we face the fractionalization of our politics," says Keene. …