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By Wooing the Right, GOP Tilts Delicate Balance

THE RUNNING ARGUMENTS: A continuing series surveying the presidential campaign and candidates.

January 03, 1988|Robert G. Beckel | Robert G. Beckel, a political analyst, served as Walter F. Mondale's campaign manager in 1984

WASHINGTON — About the only politicians still taking the Republican right seriously are the GOP presidential candidates. Unfortunately for them, this winter's warm embrace to gain the nomination may seem like a stranglehold by next fall's election.

To an outside observer, it's amazing that the right still commands the slavish obedience of Republican aspirants. The Iran-Contra scandal, the failed Supreme Court nominations, the indiscretions of television evangelists and Ronald Reagan's negotiation of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty have left the right thankful that 1987 is over. Their hope for resurrection lies in controlling the GOP presidential selection, and they are determined not to fail. Their ability to dominate legislative issues and party philosophy have forced the hopefuls to run to the right to accommodate this very special interest group. The INF Treaty, blessed by that born-yet-again peacenik, Ronald Reagan, provides the obvious example. Under starboard pressure, four of the six Republican candidates came out against the treaty. A fifth, Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, resembled a pretzel in his efforts to twist first one way then the other to please everyone, while Vice President George Bush had daggers pointed at him for his unsurprising support.

But other areas have put Republican backbones to the test--and they've bent rightward. Rep. Jack Kemp of New York declares he'd be the first on his block to pardon heroes Oliver L. North and John M. Poindexter, without even knowing what crimes he's excusing. Bush increasingly speaks of his religious convictions, which seem to intensify as his position in polls of critical states show signs of slippage. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV mentions Jeane J. Kirkpatrick as a possible running mate and scores points with editors of New Hampshire's Union Leader newspaper. And Dole refuses to take on Bush for his role in the Iran-Contra affair, not wanting to dredge up the embarrassment the righteous feel over a good deal gone publicly wrong.

A Republican candidate, then, must placate the right to gain its blessing for the party nomination. But, alas, this benediction is also a curse. Having won the nomination with the Right Stuff, any so anointed must veer back to the middle to win the general election. The problem is devilish, because those who won him the nomination can lose him the election.

Elections are won in the middle. In 1964, Goldwater Republicans could not fight off his "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice" label. It turned his loss into a landslide. In 1968, Richard M. Nixon won by moving to the middle and allowing infighting to defeat the Democrats.

In 1980 Reagan was so strong with the rights, he could put them on hold. He refuted his hawkish image and concentrated on the incumbent's sour economy instead of the social issues that would have hurt him. By 1984 the public perception of Reagan was so positive even conservatives couldn't hurt him. He embraced a platform so extreme it would have devastated any other candidate.

Last year marked the return of the righteous. Down from the mountain came their prophet--Marion G. (Pat) Robertson. Competing for the position of First Followers are Kemp and Du Pont. These men are pushing the issues agenda rightward. This scares the hell out of most Republican strategists. They realize--correctly--that no candidate is strong enough to completely hold off the right in primaries and caucuses. They understand that a protracted battle will make it tougher for the eventual nominee to scramble back to the crucial middle ground.

If the Republican candidate fails to arrive at the middle, the Democrats will win in November. The one sure issue to unite voters will be the fear of political and religious extremism; righteous authoritarianism makes conservative yuppies drive their BMW's straight to the Democratic Party. All the more reason for me to continue my support of Robertson to be the Republican nominee in 1988.

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