A Tattered Gop Starts Thinking About Tomorrow

Surveying the wreckage of George Bush's Presidency, Republicans aren't wasting time shedding tears. Instead, they're sharpening their knives for what promises to be the bloodiest succession fight since Barry Goldwater's 1964 drubbing.

There always are recriminations after a Presidential defeat. But this time the fight will be extra nasty: The party Bush leaves behind is in much worse shape than the one he inherited in 1988.

Back then, Bush presided over a fragile but potent coalition assembled by Ronald Reagan. Under the banner of low taxes, smaller government, and assertive foreign policy, young voters joined with suburbanites; urban blue-collar Catholics bonded with Southern good ol' boys and fundamentalist Christians. The combination supposedly gave the GOP a lock on the White House.

But in just four years, Bush may have gravely damaged his party's prospects. Says University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato: "There's an uneasy sense that the conservative and moderate factions of the Republican Party are prepared to step outside the `Big Tent' and settle this thing once and for all."

CRIPPLED ELEPHANT. Without a clear leader, the party is splitting into fiefdoms: There's the Old Right, the Religious Right, supply siders, old-line deficit-cutters, and a shrinking group of moderates.

Vice-President Dan Quayle, a traditional conservative, has been left homeless by the Bush defeat and may be a victim of the power struggle. Quayle's hopes for 1996 are pinned on his high-decibel debate performance and his high-intensity campaigning for the GOP ticket. But party activists are in no mood to march behind a crippled elephant. "We have to eliminate Dan Quayle as heir to the conservative wing of this party," says Texas conservative activist David Rucker. "He's a creation of George Bush." The Bush-Quayle team at the Republican National Committee will vanish swiftly, with former Minnesota Representative Vin Weber, a supply sider, the most likely new chairman.

The party's best-organized faction is the Christian Right. Although it dominated the GOP convention, it's the least likely to field a successful candidate. Led by Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition, fundamentalists now control state parties in Georgia, Iowa, and Minnesota and are winning local offices as well. But Establishment Republicans fear that the "Ayatollahs" of social radicalism will alienate key voter blocs--and saddle the GOP with the "special interest" millstone. To win again, "Republicans have to clean house of the Religious Right," says pollster Claibourne Darden.

Cultural warfare, not an explicitly religious social policy, is the focus of another set of conservatives. Fans of Patrick J. Buchanan and former Education Secretary William J. Bennett rail against liberal dominance of the education Establishment, the entertainment industry, and the news media. "The coming battle is cultural," insists conservative activist Paul M. Weyrich. But "we need a broader base than just the Religious Right."

The two pols who may have the best shot at expanding the GOP's reach are Housing & Urban Development Secretary Jack F. Kemp and Texas Senator Phil Gramm, who are fierce rivals. Supply sider Kemp, who extols stimulative tax cuts and bootstrap capitalism, feels his "bleeding-heart conservatism" will attract Democrats and independents. Gramm is a budget-balancing traditionalist. The Texan's backers charge Kemp with treason for leaking his economic prescriptions after the White House had rejected them.

KEEN ON KEAN. Moderates, meanwhile, argue that their champions are best able to capitalize on the public's new activist mood. They're heralding Massachusetts Governor William Weld, former New Jersey Governor Thomas H. Kean, and battered California Governor Pete Wilson as future stars. Trouble is, their permissive social views and economic pragmatism remind right-wingers a little too much of a loser with a high-pitched whine and a dog named Millie.

Probably the GOP's best chance for picking itself up off the canvas lies with the statehouse conservatives, exemplified by popular Governors Carroll A. Campbell Jr. of South Carolina, Tommy G. Thompson of Wisconsin, and Michigan's John Engler. These savvy politicians run conservative regimes in states that are dominated by Democrats. But do they have enough body armor to bring them unscathed through the Republicans' civil wars?

In the GOP's bleak new world, Bush's embattled moderate wing will be fighting on several fronts at once. The religious and cultural conservatives will try to seize control of the party, while followers of Ross Perot grab what they can. In the end, says analyst Kevin Phillips, "there will be nothing left of the Bushies but horn-rimmed glasses and scraps of gray flannel suit."