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California and the West | NEWS ANALYSIS

Election Sends GOP Back to Square One

State: Fractured party needs to find common ground for candidates and resonant message for voters, leaders say.

November 09, 1998|CATHLEEN DECKER | TIMES POLITICAL WRITER

California Republicans woke up last week with the parched look of people lost in the desert. They scanned the skies. They weren't looking for rain, but merely for a cloud from which to grab a silver lining.

Still reeling days after a smashing defeat in California--a mere four years after the heady time when they controlled both the governor's office and one house of the Legislature--party leaders here are unanimous in their denunciation of their own candidates' disabilities and their party's lack of a coherent message.

The silver lining was still eluding them as the week closed, but at least a strategy was beginning to take shape: Come up, belatedly, with a comprehensive education reform package, and hope like crazy that Democrat Gray Davis and his legislative allies overplay their hand. A little economic downturn wouldn't hurt, either.

But those were just the bare outlines of forward movement, and filling in all the details will be troublesome indeed. The electoral debacle has laid bare all the fissures hidden from view in the party's successful years, and most expect difficulties in the years ahead.

The schisms, and the proposals for restoring Republican strength, mirror the debate going on nationally in the wake of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's resignation.

"I expect Republicans to do what they always do--circle the wagons and aim their guns inside, unfortunately," said Assemblywoman Barbara Alby, who, as one of two Republican National Committee members from California, is the highest-ranking woman in the party structure here.

"People are going to look at postelection surveys and blame each other."

There certainly was enough blame to go around, given the 20-point loss by state Atty. Gen. Dan Lungren in the governor's race, a 10-point loss by state Treasurer Matt Fong in the contest with U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer and a near-Democratic sweep of the other statewide offices.

There were some voices of optimism, namely that of John McGraw, the Atherton activist who will take over as party chairman in February.

"After getting our butts kicked as we did, this is no time for internal fighting," he said in an interview. "This is the time for a meeting of the minds, and unanimity, and going forward together."

But political reality, as McGraw acknowledged, is a bit more complicated, and cuts to the heart of how the Republican Party here sees itself. The answer: It depends on who's holding the mirror.

Some elements of the party advocate playing to the most dependable voters, conservatives, with issues like affirmative action. But others note that pressing issues like that only alienates the party from minority voters and the moderates who defected to the Democrats this year.

Some suggest a Reaganesque return to emphasizing tax cuts, and playing down divisive social issues. Some counter that, with even the Democrats espousing support for a balanced budget, the social issues represent the most stark choice between the parties.

Some suggest a move to the center. Some suggest a move to the right. Some throw up their hands and say the party needs to simply figure out what it stands for and stand for it.

"What was lacking Tuesday was only reflective of what was lacking overall in all the days that led up to that: The Republican Party has to first of all decide on what it represents," said Ward Connerly, the party's finance chairman. "For the last six years, the party has been very, very ill-equipped to define issues that define the party."

Even defining the party for the broad consumption of voters will be problematic. Michael Der Manouel Jr., state GOP vice chairman, said that for the first time in a generation Republicans have no high-ranking titular leader.

"We are not headed by a governor or a senator, and we will be looking to a small pool of legislators . . . and a lot of high-profile volunteers will be running the shop," he said. "That in itself provides challenges."

The most titanic struggle is likely to be over how Republicans go about trying to attract moderate voters. Among some in the party, particularly the strategists who try to mold candidates into winners, there is a strong desire to broaden the discussion to issues that have been given short shrift in the past.

"Gray Davis won on the death penalty and three strikes, for God's sakes," said one strategist, underscoring how Democrats have moved toward Republican positions on some key issues. "Rather than welcoming the Democrats to our policies, what we're doing is scrambling farther and farther right. But there's not too much room over there."

That strategist, who like others spoke on condition of anonymity, favors pressing ahead on issues such as education, health care and children's programs. But others in the party suggest a simultaneous emphasis on the social issues--such as abortion--that have splintered the party in the past.

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