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NEWS ANALYSIS : GOP Leaders Trying to Put Brakes on Political Tailspin

Strategy: Policy setbacks, disunity have Republicans struggling to find a voice. Disarray tarnishes Dole.

May 01, 1996|ELIZABETH SHOGREN and JANET HOOK | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — A deep anxiety is spreading through the ranks of Republicans in Washington as GOP members of Congress, party elders and campaign leaders try frantically to figure out how to free their agenda--and themselves--from a deep rut.

They are coming up with some answers. But at least some of the answers contradict each other, and no consensus has emerged. As a result, the cohesion and trust in their top leadership, including Republican presidential candidate Sen. Bob Dole, is eroding.

"There are a lot of members in a state of panic here," said freshman Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) "They're just all worked up about everything."

For Dole, the growing disunity poses two threats: It tarnishes the image of leadership that he has made central to his presidential bid and it also detracts from whatever message he may try to convey to voters.

House Republicans already are striking out on their own to help themselves in the coming elections. Many are worried that the unified GOP message, which helped them sweep the elections in 1994 and mount an ambitious program in Congress, might be gone for good.

In one stormy meeting after another last week, GOP leaders were pilloried first by GOP moderates for blocking a vote on the minimum wage and then by conservatives for accepting a budget deal that funded Clinton's Goals 2000 education initiative.

"They can't satisfy anyone around here," Foley said. "Nobody is happy."

Republican troops are complaining that Dole has failed thus far to articulate a vision for the party and that House Speaker Newt Gingrich has not yet resumed his position as the party's chief strategist and spokesman.

Gingrich has handed over day-to-day operation of the House to Majority Leader Dick Armey (R-Texas) to give himself time to develop a congressional campaign strategy, but if he has developed such a plan, it has yet to catch fire.

"The speaker was going to go underground for three months to work on strategy and vision," said freshman Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.) "Where is it? There's a concern it might not be coming."

Instead of focusing on the initiatives that are the heart and soul of the GOP revolution--such as welfare reform--Republican leaders in recent weeks have been busy responding to Democratic initiatives, like increasing the minimum wage, and grasping for political gain with new issues, like repealing the gasoline tax.

As the party has drifted, a question has emerged with growing frequency: Can Dole, the presumptive presidential nominee, direct the party back to a winning track or should the more revolutionary House Republicans chart their own course?

"We're nervous," Souder said. "Can we hold up the numbers battling on a district-by-district basis without an overarching vision? At some point we need a national vision that's articulated by the nominee."

The jitters of Republican officeholders have been exacerbated by gloomy assessments from high-profile GOP leaders:

* Republican National Committee Chairman Haley Barbour, conceding in an interview broadcast Sunday on CNN that "Democrats today, in a snap election, would have a chance" to regain majorities in both houses of Congress. "I don't think they would prevail, but they would have a chance."

* Gingrich saying in a recent speech before the GOPAC political action committee that "we are going through a Republican period of being in a funk."

* Angela "Bay" Buchanan, Patrick J. Buchanan's campaign chairman and sister, saying Sunday on CBS that unless the Dole campaign can find a way to unify the party and woo Democrats and undecided voters, "there is no way we can win, and we're going to lose the Congress as well if we're not careful."

Republicans can, in fact, take solace that election day is six long months away, and political winds may still shift.

But the grim statements of late sound especially dire to the rank-and-file Republicans because just a few months ago, when the GOP was riding high, the thought of Republicans losing either chamber appeared inconceivable.

"When you've gone through a whole year of trying to do the right thing and haven't gotten any credit but are getting all the blame," said Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.), "that takes the wind out of your sails."

Public opinion polls this year have shown Republicans were seriously wounded by their defeat at the hands of the White House in last winter's budget battle. GOP leaders and conservative analysts contend that Republicans have a sure opportunity to retake the initiative with their proposal for the next budget year, but so far they have been struggling.

On several issues, open skirmishes have broken out among Republican leaders, between House and Senate Republicans and even within the once-monolithic House Republican conference.

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