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CAMPAIGN '96

GOP Hears Lots of Debate, No Unified Voice

Politics: Competing ideas have left the party's underlying philosophy much murkier than in the past. Some are laying groundwork for 2000.

August 17, 1996|JAMES GERSTENZANG | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SAN DIEGO — The Republican Party is a moving target.

Less than two years ago, the party appeared firmly under the guidance of a coterie of conservatives whose ardor burned hotter than even that of Ronald Reagan. Its ideas and ideology, the direction of its march and the underlying philosophy guiding it were clear.

But the backlash that greeted the Republican-led Congress has clouded that vision. And now, as the party heads into the general election campaign, its course is much less clear.

"We're redefining on the fly," said a senior aide to presidential nominee Bob Dole.

The result all week has been a hot contest of ideas here--promulgated in large part by politicians with their eyes set firmly on the year 2000.

Publicly, as the Republicans left their convention city, they insisted that Dole will win the election. But, just in case, politicians who hope to be contenders in four years spent much of the week trying to shape the ideological contours of the party.

The action off the floor stood in sharp contrast to scenes played out before the television cameras. On the convention's opening night, for instance, former First Lady Nancy Reagan paid an emotion-choked visit to the convention. A videotape recalling her husband's presidency brought tears to many eyes. But the nostalgia only underscored the sense that this is no longer the unified party it was during the 1980s--and the convention has provided no suggestion of who is in charge.

Patrick J. Buchanan punctuated the week with rallies aimed at promoting his conservative social agenda that is protectionist, antiabortion and anti-gay.

Buchanan made numerous appearances in TV anchor booths overlooking the floor of the San Diego Convention Center. But he was not welcome on the floor, let alone at the podium.

His address at the Houston convention in 1992, angry in its denunciation of cultural differences across the nation, was seen by convention organizers here as so off-putting to voters that each speaker's text this week was carefully examined to comb out any rhetoric that could be divisive to the GOP coalition.

House Republican freshmen, whose victories two years ago so shook up the political scene, were barely players in San Diego.

Retired Gen. Colin L. Powell made his debut with a much-noticed opening-night address that sought to push the party to a middle ground that is pro-abortion rights and pro-affirmative action. But his views have failed to catch fire.

Steve Forbes organized an economic forum at which panelists moderated by Jeb Bush, the son of the former president and the party's unsuccessful candidate for governor of Florida in 1994, and Pierre S. "Pete" Du Pont IV, the former governor of Delaware, touted the theory that supply-side tax cuts will boost the economy while reducing the federal budget deficit. The audience wandered in and out of the basement meeting room at the Hotel del Coronado amid stores selling orange Indian sapphires and the Miss Manners book "On Weddings."

On the main floor above them, Dole spoke to the convention's New York delegation, part of a crowd that spilled out into the lobby. He joked about his hometown and his choice of Jack Kemp as his running mate.

He paid no heed to Forbes.

*

As for Kemp, he was everywhere--physically and ideologically. One of the convention's major news stories, in fact, was Kemp's reversal of his opposition to expelling the children of illegal immigrants from public schools and his embrace of a California ballot initiative to eliminate state affirmative action programs, a measure he previously had questioned. In both cases, Kemp's new positions put him on track with Dole.

To a large degree, the GOP finds itself seeking new definition because it is evolving from its homogeneous roots into a more diverse and larger coalition. As such, it is following the path of the Democratic Party, which in the 1930s and 1940s evolved into a coalition party made up of such varied segments of American society as white farmers in Mississippi, Detroit factory workers and teachers on Manhattan's Upper West Side.

Many see Dole searching for a new definition of the party that decisively breaks from the image crafted by House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, House Majority Leader Dick Armey of Texas and the House freshmen.

"It's a Reagan-Dole-Kemp-Powell ticket," said William Kristol, once Vice President Dan Quayle's chief of staff and now editor and publisher of the Weekly Standard, a conservative publication. Such a definition of the presidential ticket, he argued, leaves little room for the approaches favored by the House freshmen and their mentor, Gingrich.

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