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GOP Hopes Rise Amid Signs of Grand Old Comeback : Politics: Off-year contests could yield big gains. Sore points remain as party activists seek fresh approaches.


WASHINGTON — Suddenly there is new life in the Grand Old Party. Six months after the Democrats kicked the stuffing out of them and took away the White House, Republicans at every level are caught up in a burst of brainstorming. They are thrashing out disagreements over abortion and other old sore points and striving to draft fresh approaches to the conundrums of a new political age.

In part these efforts are being driven by President Clinton's fitful start in the White House and what Republicans contend is his tilt toward his party's traditional liberalism, despite his protestations that he is a "new kind of Democrat." His performance has given them hope that their time wandering in the political wilderness may not last as long as many had feared.

"Bill Clinton is a godsend," argued national party chairman Haley Barbour. "I'm not being facetious when I say that he has done more to unify us than anything I have done."

To exploit this opportunity, Barbour is putting the finishing touches on an ambitious effort to create a national message for the party by bringing together local and national leaders at grass-roots issues conferences around the country.

"I want the average Republican in every state to have the opportunity to share ideas with Republican leaders about how we can better articulate what we believe in," he said.

Already there are some signs pointing to a possible GOP comeback. In Texas, Republican state Treasurer Kay Bailey Hutchison is favored to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Robert Krueger in a special election next month.

Recent polls also give the GOP an even-money chance of taking control of the nation's two largest cities, both longtime Democratic strongholds--Los Angeles, where Republican businessman Richard Riordan is pitted against Democratic Councilman Michael Woo next month, and New York, where 1989 GOP mayoral candidate Rudolph W. Giuliani is challenging Democratic Mayor David N. Dinkins in November.

Whatever the outcome of these off-year contests, Republicans acknowledge the need to address fundamental changes in the political landscape. And arriving at some kind of consensus will be no simple task. Divisions over some of the party's most basic positions--such as abortion--remain profound.

For more than two decades the GOP dominated the national agenda by persuading voters they were better than the Democrats at promoting growth at home and combatting communism abroad. But all that had ended by the 1992 election with the collapse of the "Red menace" and the souring of the economy.

"We are now post-Reagan-Bush," said William J. Bennett, a 1996 presidential prospect who was drug czar in the George Bush Administration and education secretary in the Ronald Reagan Administration. "That era is over and a new era has begun, and we don't yet know what it means."

As a result, Bennett said, "What we're getting is a political version of the Council of Trent," referring to the historic 16th-Century conclave that reformed the Roman Catholic Church. "It's a very doctrinal debate and it's very vigorous."

Not to be left out, Bennett, along with three other conservative GOP stalwarts--former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp and former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber--founded an organization called Empower America to generate grass-roots support for conservative causes.

Right now, the Washington-based advocacy group, which holds its first regional conference in Milwaukee next month, is using the mails to rally its 150,000 members around the country in opposition to Clinton's tax proposals.

Although the new Republican blueprint will not be finally written until 1996, when the party nominates its presidential standard-bearer and drafts a new platform, the broad outlines of the GOP's principal new objectives are already emerging. A quick survey of those objectives:

* Redefine the so-called values issues to make them more relevant and less divisive.

"Don't reject social conservatism, but don't package it like the Salem Witch Trials," said media strategist Michael Murphy.

Many Republicans feel that President Bush's error in the 1992 campaign was not in promoting traditional family values but in failing to articulate much of anything else.

The economy and related concerns must be at the core of any political message. "The trouble with the 1992 convention was that it allowed the peripheral part of the message, on values, to dominate," said Dave Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union. "There was nothing wrong with the notes struck, except that there was nothing else there."

One solution to the 1992 problem now being advanced is to combine economic issues with values. "My view is that it's not just 'the economy, stup" said conservative spokesman Paul M. Weyrich, referring to the celebrated slogan of the Clinton presidential campaign. "It's also the culture."

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