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Republican Leadership Mulls Strategy on Scandal


SAN FRANCISCO — Republican leaders from across the country gathered Thursday in this famously foggy city and immediately faced a cloud of a different sort: the corporate corruption scandal that has come to swallow the political scene.

They called for a crackdown on executive excesses. They pointed fingers, attacking Democrats for pointing fingers. They defended President Bush and accused former President Clinton of turning the '90s boom into a bacchanal.

But mostly, party officials shrugged and shook their heads and acknowledged that, like the weather, no one can accurately forecast how today's climate will affect November's election.

"If the economy remains solid, if the stock market reasonably rebounds and gives faith to some folks, then I don't think there'll be any significant impact," said Al Cardenas, chairman of the Florida Republican Party. "If that doesn't happen ... "

The three-day national strategy session came as the two major political parties grapple for control of the nearly evenly divided Congress and fight hand-to-hand in 36 governor's races across the country, including in California.

For a time, it seemed as if the war against terrorism and fallout from Sept. 11 would dominate the midterm election. But lately, voters have grown more concerned about the economy, with job creation in a rut, and increasingly absorbed in the crises of confidence afflicting institutions ranging from Major League Baseball to the Roman Catholic Church to Wall Street.

The shifting landscape "creates unease," said Tom Rath, New Hampshire's longtime representative on the Republican National Committee. "When you have a very popular president, any externality that distracts from the focus on him and what he stands for we have to worry about."

The revelations of corporate misconduct are a particular concern, several of those attending the strategy meeting said, given some voters' preconceptions about the Republican Party.

"I think we probably have more exposure because the public tends to equate us more with big business," said Mike Hellon, a national committee member from Arizona. "On the other hand, the wrongdoing, the misconduct, started when Clinton was in office."

Other partisans also suggested the roots of today's revelations were planted firmly in the eight years that Democrats held the political high ground. "They spent the whole time talking about how the economy was the best it had ever been," said Mike McDaniel, who was chairman of the Indiana Republican Party for the better part of the Clinton administration. "But there was more corporate greed taking place during those years than any time in history."

To help set things right, a few here suggested it would be nice to see some corporate heads roll. "People need to go to jail and people need to know that we're as serious about crime in the boardroom as crime in the streets," Hellon said.

And yet while Republican lawmakers in Congress have been quick to outflank the president, embracing tougher steps against corporate wrongdoers than he proposed, the party's foot soldiers here had nothing but praise for Bush. If anything, several warned against taking the remedial steps too far. "This is the perfect recipe for creating laws with unintended consequences that will hurt even more down the road," said John Ryder, a GOP committeeman from Tennessee.

Still, others see Congress as moving too slowly. They accused Democrats of stalling progress on reform measures in hopes of keeping corporate corruption alive as an issue until voters start making up their minds in the fall.

"This is a party that will screech if you politicize the war," Mindy Tucker, spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee, said of the Democrats. "But it's fine with someone losing their entire life savings" in a corporate collapse.

What is needed, said Cardenas of the Florida GOP, is a balanced and bipartisan approach, "not to grandstand as the Democrats are doing."

With the stock market sagging and the economy imperiled, restoring faith in corporate America is "too serious a matter" to inject into partisan politics, he added. But only up to a point.

"At some point," Cardenas said, "if Democrats keep this up, we're going to start pointing fingers."

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