Not long ago, the Republican Party was sure of a couple of things. First, that the 1994 GOP sweep of public offices--from local school boards to the U.S. Congress--was the kind of realignment that occurs only once every 50 years. And second, that President Bill Clinton was dead meat in '96.
But a chill wind of anxiety is whipping through the GOP these days. The party's Presidential front-runner, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, is slipping in the polls. None of his leading rivals for the party's nomination is stirring the public's passions. And Clinton is showing signs of life as he grabs for a center vacated by a right-leaning GOP field. Frets one Republican party strategist: "We are on the verge of majority status, but we don't have a Presidential figure like Franklin Roosevelt or Ronald Reagan to deliver the deal."
BIGGER FIGHT. The latest symptom of fluidity in the GOP's ranks: Presidential flirtations by retired General Colin L. Powell and House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia. Magazine publisher Malcolm S. Forbes Jr., meanwhile, has scheduled a Sept. 22 announcement of his candidacy. The widening field will only intensify the fight within the party over what it should represent--the pro-growth optimism of Forbes, the economic nationalism of Pat Buchanan, or the harsh social conservatism of Senator Phil Gramm of Texas.
Intensifying Republican jitters is a batch of surveys that show Dole slipping among GOP voters, who now say they aren't sure who to back. Worse, none of the announced candidates beats Clinton. According to a Time-Cable News Network poll taken on Sept. 13-14, Clinton tops Dole 45% to 40%. In January, Dole was ahead 50% to 39%.
Republican pollster Edward A. Goeas III says Dole's role as chief legislative negotiator removes "an advantage that a GOP nominee needs to have--that he is firm in his beliefs." Adds a senior strategist: "Dole is beginning to resemble Fritz Mondale in 1984. We owe [the nomination] to him. He's been around the track. But there's still no vision."
The GOP's field of senators and governors is loaded with impressive resumes. Still, some Republicans long for luminaries who are sitting out the race--former Cabinet secretaries Jack Kemp, William E. Bennett, and Richard B. Cheney. Party pros also worry that beyond the core theme of smaller government, the candidates haven't found a message that resonates. Gramm's bootstrap welfare position seems mean-spirited to some. And California Governor Pete Wilson's stands on immigration and affirmative action have turned off others.
CAN'T DO? Forbes, the editor-in-chief of Forbes magazine, hopes to fill the void left by the other Republican candidates. "As a group, they don't reflect the can-do spirit." Forbes says.
The millionaire's vision is one of Reagan-style optimism. He would unleash economic prosperity by adopting a 17% flat income tax, returning to the gold standard, and partially privatizing Social Security. A longtime supply sider, Forbes derides a sudden interest in tax overhaul by Dole and other GOP contenders. "They put their fingers in the air and realize that people are moving in this direction," he says. "When the flak starts, will they have the Reaganesque stamina to see it through?"
GOP insiders think that Forbes's candidacy, at the very least, could shift the debate to the economy. But some strategists think only a Powell run could lift the party from its doldrums. According to polls, Powell is the only Republican who could beat Clinton today. In New Hampshire, 53% of Republicans think Powell should run--a bad sign for Dole.
Powellmania could moderate as the general's book blitz ends. And Dole backers argue that the Senate Majority Leader merely is facing the dip in support that all front-runners experience. "All that matters now is who's got the best organization, and Dole remains the man to beat," says Dole adviser Mark Goodin, a GOP consultant. How about Powell? "The public is enchanted with theoretical candidates--until they jump in the race," he says.
That may be true. But whether Powell, Newt, and the others run or not, Republicans may still face a nagging question: With a weak incumbent in the White House, shouldn't we be doing better?
The GOP's Presidential Prospects
Front-runner Dole is stumbling, opening up the race to new rivals
-- Colin Powell
A fiscal conservative, social moderate. Backs affirmative action.
PROSPECTS: Instant front-runner if he runs. But will he fit the GOP?
-- Malcolm Forbes Jr.
PLATFORM: A libertarian supply-sider. Pro-choice and pro-flat tax.
PROSPECTS: Poor except among the wealthy and GOP libertarians.
-- Bob Dole
PLATFORM: Mainstream conservative who supports a balanced budget.
PROSPECTS: Front-runner could exit if support continues to erode.