WASHINGTON — "Four more years," came the chant greeting President Reagan when he addressed the 14th annual Conservative Political Action Conference, which concluded here Saturday.
It is easy to understand why. With the 1988 presidential campaign already well under way, the dominant reality that emerged from this gathering is that conservatives have yet to reach consensus on their choice for the Republican nomination. And that disagreement threatens to erode their influence within the GOP.
"United you stand; divided you fall," said a worried Bryan McCanless, from Greenville, S.C., one of about 1,000 activists from around the country who flocked here for three days of political strategy sessions and speeches from half a dozen 1988 White House prospects.
Effect of Iran Deal
Paradoxically, one factor contributing to the divisiveness on the right is the mishandling of the Iranian arms deal by an Administration headed by the politician whom conservatives still revere above all others.
The Iran-\o7 contra \f7 scandal has given a pessimistic tone to the conservative outlook, conceded Charles Black, longtime Reagan loyalist and campaign manager for the soon-to-be-announced presidential candidacy of Republican Rep. Jack Kemp of New York. "It gives conservatives the feeling that we're on the defensive."
Conservatives are being pulled in different directions, with some criticizing those involved in the Iran affair while others are defending the President and reserving their fire for his critics.
Thus, at the opening session of this conclave, David Keene, chairman of the conference, disavowed any link between conservatism and Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North, the National Security Council aide who was fired for his role in the scandal.
'Never Met Oliver North'
"I've been involved in this movement since I was 15 years old," said the 42-year-old Keene. I never met Oliver North at any conservative gathering."
Meanwhile, however, in the corridors just outside, "American Hero" buttons bearing North's likeness and the words "Duty, Honor, Country" were outselling all other souvenirs--including buttons for the presidential hopefuls who addressed conference sessions.
Midway through the conference, button vendor Frank Enton, a staunch right-winger himself--"My car doesn't even make left turns," he said--counted 500 North buttons sold at $3 each.
The Iran scandal has created a dilemma for GOP prospects seeking conservative support, as Vice President George Bush found out earlier last week when the hard-line conservative Manchester Union Leader, the largest paper in New Hampshire, took him to task editorially for not stating flatly that the Reagan Administration had made a "terrible mistake" in selling arms to Iran.
Bush Tells of Reservations
But on the other hand, when Bush said about 10 days ago that he had had some early "reservations" about the way the Administration had handled the Iran affair, his supporters worried that he might be accused of disloyalty to the President.
Bush was the only major GOP presidential contender to pass up this year's conference, although he did address the gathering in 1986. But the scandal poses similar problems for his competitors. This point was driven home to Republican Senate leader Bob Dole of Kansas, Bush's chief rival in the polls, when he spoke here.
Dole tried to finesse the issue by taking a quick slap at "liberals (who) are out there crying crocodile tears over the Iran affair" and by urging conservatives to "stand strong and together" in the face of adversity. But during the question period, one of the many young activists on hand asked Dole to explain published remarks he made appearing to liken the Iran scandal to Watergate, which drove Richard M. Nixon from the presidency in 1974.
Price of Watergate
Dole said he had only meant to recall the high political price that Republicans, even those who had no connection to the Nixon Administration, paid for Watergate--not to suggest that the Iran affair was as serious as the Nixon scandal. "This is not Watergate," he said. "There is no obstruction of justice."
Later his questioner, Todd Siefert, whose home is in Los Angeles, acknowledged that conservatives differ widely on the Iran affair. "I think people intrinsically feel that, if it was an arms for hostages deal, it was wrong," he said. But Siefert said he thinks the Administration was mainly trying to block Soviet expansion in the Persian Gulf.
"'I believe the Administration knew what it was doing," he said.
On the other hand, David Smith of Brooklyn said: "It's clear to me that Reagan made a mistake," and added that the consequences would be damaging for the conservative movement.
Even without the internal confusion created by the uproar over Iran, conservatives would have trouble enough agreeing on what Sen. Steven D. Symms (R-Ida.) described in one conference session as "some new hero in shining armor."
Flaws of Hopefuls
All of the pretenders to that role seem to have one flaw or another. Bush, for example, is still resented for his challenge to Reagan in 1980, as well as his "preppy" background; Dole is viewed with misgivings because of his past support for tax increases, and Kemp is suspect in some quarters because of his opposition to freezing cost-of-living hikes for Social Security beneficiaries.