SEATTLE — With all the attention that the disarray in the Democratic Party's 1988 presidential campaign has attracted, one sign of ferment within the Republican Party has gone almost unnoticed: GOP conservatives, the dominant force in that party's nominating process, are still shopping for a candidate.
The latest possibility to surface as a potential competitor for the mantle of conservative leadership is former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick.
An ex-Democrat, the 60-year-old Kirkpatrick won the hearts of the right with her hard-line anti-communist rhetoric, notably her memorable speech at the 1984 Republican National Convention condemning the Democrats for "blaming America first." She is being pressed to enter the race by restless conservatives.
But Kirkpatrick, normally a woman of decisive bent, seems to be having trouble making up her mind.
"I have certainly not intended to be a candidate," she told reporters here where she was a featured speaker at the Western State Republican Leadership conference that ended Saturday. "But so many people talked to me about it so much that they finally persuaded me to consider it."
But Kirkpatrick did make one thing clear. She has her eye on the first debate among Republican presidential candidates, which is scheduled for Oct. 28 in Houston and will be carried live around the country on public television.
Asked if she would decide about her candidacy before the debate, Kirkpatrick replied: "Absolutely."
Her admirers, even those backing other candidates, believe she would be a formidable adversary in the debate. "When she is on a roll she is awesome," said Georgia Rep. Newt Gingrich, founder of the Conservative Opportunity Society, a group of GOP activist conservative members of the House and a backer of the presidential candidacy of New York Rep. Jack Kemp.
A Seeming Disavowal
Only two weeks ago at a conservative gathering in New Hampshire, Kirkpatrick had seemed to flatly disavow the possibility of her seeking the nation's highest office. But last week, former New Hampshire Gov. Meldrim Thompson, an early backer of Reagan in his 1976 presidential bid, was reported to be preparing to establish an exploratory committee in her name.
The emergence of Kirkpatrick as a potential contender has been fostered by the difficulties other GOP candidates have had in rallying the right wing behind any of them. Former Nevada Sen. Paul Laxalt, thought by some to have the inside track among conservatives because of his close personal ties to Reagan, decided not to make the race, blaming problems in fund raising.
That left three candidates who are competing most directly for right-wing support--Kemp, former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV and former television evangelist Pat Robertson.
But Kemp has run into debt trying to finance his direct mail fund-raising operation. Du Pont is not yet well enough known to attract much right-wing support, and Robertson, who has high negatives in the polls because of his religious background, appeared to hurt himself further with a speech here in which he seemed to cast aspersions on First Lady Nancy Reagan on the eve of her operation for breast cancer.
Place in History
Speaking of his own wife, Dede, Robertson said: "She has never suggested that I make an accommodation with the Soviet Union in order to win the Nobel Peace Prize." Many conference attendees took that comment to be an allusion to reports that Mrs. Reagan has urged the President to reach an accord with the Soviet Union on nuclear arms to enhance his place in history.
Robertson later denied that his comment was aimed at Mrs. Reagan but he did not explain to whom he was alluding.
If Kirkpatrick does enter the race, many think Kemp could be the big loser since she would be appealing to many of the same conservative groups he is trying to reach. "Certainly she would make him work harder," conceded Gingrich.
Kemp himself made no bones about his reluctance to compete against the rhetorical flair Kirkpatrick would bring to the race. "I would prefer that she wouldn't," he told reporters here when asked his reaction to a Kirkpatrick candidacy. "But," he added "I've just got to say welcome."
Many people think that if Kirkpatrick does run she would have to resign herself to being a symbolic candidate if only because she would be a very late starter. "I can't conceive of her winning the nomination," said Republican pollster Linda DiVall, who pointed out the difficulties Kirkpatrick would face in collecting the signatures needed to get delegates on the ballot in such key states as New York and Illinois.
Proud of Intellect
Another obstacle is that Kirkpatrick has never sought elective office before. A woman who takes pride in her intellectual abilities and achievements, she may be unwilling to unbend enough to indulge in the glad-handing and backslapping requisite for success in the political process.
Some supporters say that even if she decides not to seek the presidency, the current interest in Kirkpatrick's candidacy will help her prospects for being selected as vice president.
"I'm convinced that with her on the ticket we can't lose," said Miriam Hellreich, 1985 Reagan campaign chairman in Hawaii who has collected more than 600 signatures from GOP activists like herself boosting Kirkpatrick for national office. "She cuts across gender lines as well as party lines."