WASHINGTON — The ballots had scarcely been tallied in last month's midterm elections before Republican Sens. Bob Dole of Kansas, Phil Gramm of Texas and Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania were off to make new friends in Iowa, where the competition to become the next GOP standard-bearer doesn't officially begin for 14 months.
The early burst of activity is easy to understand. The Republicans' stunning sweep of Congress has boosted optimism about the party's chances of recapturing the White House, making a GOP presidential nomination that much more desirable.
But as the glow from November's triumph fades, party professionals soberly acknowledge that the path back to the Oval Office will not be an easy one. On the contrary, it is fraught with perils--many of a sort that Republicans have not had to face for half a century.
Before they took control of Congress, Republicans could concentrate simply on denouncing President Clinton's government. Now they are responsible for half the government themselves. Said Charles Black, who will probably manage the presidential campaign of either Gramm or former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp: "Voters expect performance from us."
GOP strategists acknowledge that those expectations may be difficult to meet for a host of reasons.
Furthermore, the 1996 presidential contenders face the biggest early crush of primaries and caucuses ever--a situation that is largely a result of states' efforts to position themselves as powerbrokers. The shortened schedule creates a fund-raising burden that could obliterate the hopes of all but a few well-heeled candidates.
For the time being, Republicans like to dwell on the positive side of their election victory. By scoring a net gain of 10 governorships, the Republicans took command of 30 states, including eight of the nine largest.
"We have more depth at the state level than we have had since '64," said Republican political consultant Eddie Mahe, a veteran of the last five presidential campaigns. "And that gives us more power to drive turnout on Election Day."
Some also rejoice at the chance to shape the national political debate. "The Republicans in Congress now have the chance to adopt a positive agenda," said Bill Phillips, a former GOP Senate staffer who is thinking about helping the efforts of either of two 1996 prospects--California Gov. Pete Wilson or former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney.
Nevertheless, finding the magic formula for the 1996 presidential campaign could turn out to be particularly hard for the Republicans because so much of the early action is going to take place on Capitol Hill.
"The merging of our congressional agenda, which is going to be aggressive, with our presidential campaign message could create some opportunities for real pain," Mahe worried aloud in a recent interview.
While presidential candidates like to deal in sweeping generalizations, stressing themes rather than specifics, legislators make deals and cut corners--just the sort of maneuvers that can turn off potential constituents.
Moreover, in addition to the general tension between campaigning and legislation, the GOP must worry about a host of potential conflicts over specific issues that could spill over on the campaign trail from Congress--and vice versa.
For example, Senate Republican leader and prospective candidate Dole, who still harbors the traditional conservative concerns about holding down the federal budget deficit, has made it clear he is less enthusiastic than incoming House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) about enacting the House GOP's "contract with America," with its package of tax cuts.
The same issue also presents the potential for a clash in the Senate--and on the hustings--between Dole and Gramm, an influential Senate force and a formidable rival for GOP nominee.
A fight is already under way on immigration policy. It was touched off before last month's elections by Kemp, who denounced Proposition 187, the successful California ballot measure, backed by Wilson, that cuts off public services to illegal immigrants. GOP pollster Frank Luntz predicts that the battle will be renewed in states troubled by illegal immigration, notably California, Texas and Florida.
Equally touchy and divisive are social issues, particularly school prayer and abortion. No sooner had Gingrich announced his intentions to push for adoption of a school prayer amendment to the Constitution than a number of Republican governors urged their colleagues in Congress to concentrate instead on the economic issues that produced the Republican landslide.
Even Michigan Gov. John Engler, a conservative on social issues, said: "If we don't deal with economic issues, we'll need more than prayer to solve our problems."