Republican Brian Smith was happy to see President Clinton's yearlong impeachment battle come to an end Friday, but couldn't shake misgivings about how the GOP's fixation on the ordeal may have damaged the party and its future in Orange County.
"I just can't understand what they were thinking," said Smith, a data processing expert, who was enjoying a beer at the Goat Hill Tavern in Costa Mesa after a morning of golf. "All that stuff just turned me off. It turned a lot of Republicans off."
Hours after the Senate voted to acquit Clinton of perjury and obstruction of justice Friday, Smith and several other local Republicans said the GOP needs to refocus quickly on the economy, Medicare and other pressing issues if it hopes to stay in power both nationally and locally.
Even in Orange County, a GOP stronghold, the party faithful were wondering if Republican leaders had lost sight of the real concerns among voters. At the least, the public reaction to Clinton's impeachment and GOP setbacks in the 1998 election showed the party had slipped, they said.
"The Republican Party doesn't have statesmen anymore. Here, or nationally," said Dwight Gick, a Republican publishing consultant from Huntington Beach. "I think the party here has lots of old fogeys in it, and it needs new blood."
Gick's wife, Anne, said the GOP first must make changes at home.
"If the party doesn't run good candidates, and keeps picking people like [Assemblyman] Scott Baugh and Robert Dornan, they're going to get beat," Anne Gick said. "It's that simple."
The GOP's grip on the county remains solid, but showed signs of loosening in the November election. Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Lungren won Orange County by only 47,725 votes, despite the Republicans' 227,504 edge in voter registration.
Voters in the central county also elected two Democratic newcomers to the California Legislature--state Sen. Joe Dunn of Garden Grove and Assemblyman Lou Correa of Santa Ana--and once again sent Democrat Loretta Sanchez to Congress, rejecting former Republican stalwart Dornan a second straight time.
Local Republican leaders acknowledge they're on their heels, but dismiss speculation the GOP hold on the county may be diminishing.
Dale Dykema, president of the conservative Lincoln Club, said that during the impeachment debate, Democrats and the White House painted the GOP as a mean-spirited, right-wing party.
Still, he expects the damage to be short-lived, especially since public opinion polls show most voters--while against removing Clinton from office--still disapproved of his affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. House and Senate Republicans sided with morality, and eventually voters will reward them, he said.
"Obviously, today's polls show this has all impacted negatively on the Republicans," Dykema said. "But by the time we get to the 2000 election, I think that will change significantly."
To bounce back, Republicans need to downplay conservative social issues, including "family values," because doing so will only dredge up bitter memories of Clinton's impeachment, Dykema said.