What's Next For The Fragmented Gop?

The party lacks a leader--and a clear direction

He began the campaign looking every inch the Senate Majority Leader who reigned supreme on Capitol Hill: Bob Dole, immaculate in a dark suit and crisp white shirt. He ended it in a frantic 96-hour dash across America, a hoarse, haggard figure in a rumpled white golf jacket. Groggy Republicans who turned out at predawn rallies caught only a glimpse of a spectral Ancient Mariner who whispered "Trust," then boarded the ghost ship of his chartered jet for an unknown destination.

Despite a furious closing blitz that sliced Bill Clinton's lead nearly in half, Robert J. Dole--the last of the World War II generation of Republican leaders--lost big. A moderate caught in his party's rightward drift, he waged a campaign that was long on aggression but short on conviction. Dole trumpeted a tax cut he didn't seem to believe in, pushed "wedge" issues he reviled, and even felt compelled to pick a running mate he detested. He exited amid a scalding stream of accusations about White House ethics problems, a last-minute assault that may have helped buoy the GOP in congressional races.

TOO TIMID? Already, the Religious Right is pinning the loss on Dole's failure to highlight moral issues. Economic conservatives contend that his tax cut was too timid, since he balked at radical reform. With equal fervor, social moderates insist Dole's refusal to repudiate party extremists alienated women and swing voters. Indeed, soccer moms and working women rejected him in droves, leaving him with only 37% of women's votes. "Abortion, the Christian Coalition, and Pat Buchanan did more damage to Dole than any tax plan," says GOP analyst James P. Pinkerton.

Maybe. But the split verdict provides a divided GOP with few clues to a future path. "In George Bush and Bob Dole, we've had two not-very-exciting candidates run two not-very-good campaigns," muses Lyn Nofziger, White House aide to Presidents Nixon and Reagan. "My generation is now out of the picture. As for the Reagan coalition--I say, `What coalition?' Bush and Dole kicked away Reagan Democrats and Catholics and blue-collar voters until there was nothing left."

So conservatives are bitter. But moderates aren't much happier. "We waged a campaign that was a running argument with the American people on issues ranging from abortion to education to assault weapons," says former New Jersey Governor Thomas H. Kean, now president of Drew University. "The question for Republicans is: `How badly do we want to win?"' That, Kean says, "means getting back in the center."

To complicate matters, Dole's fadeout leaves the GOP without a unifying leader--a role Dole assumed in 1993, after George Bush's White House ouster. "We have no Reagan-like heroic figure to look to," notes former Minnesota Representative Vin Weber. "Our next Presidential race will be more wide open than any in my lifetime."

Actually, the jockeying already has begun. By default, Dole's running mate, Jack Kemp, starts off as a consensus All-American pick for 2000. He initially impressed Republicans with his enthusiasm. But the glow faded fast. Conservatives now carp that Kemp's refusal to rip into Clinton put too much of the attack burden on Dole. Moderates were disappointed in Kemp's muzzy debate performance and feel his tax-o-centric views make him a one-note candidate. "Kemp will start with a big lead, but his support will be thin," says economic consultant Jeffrey Bell.

Next to Kemp, the GOP's most recognizable marquee figure is retired general Colin L. Powell. But the self-described "Rockefeller Republican," remains noncommittal about a future political role. "He still doesn't know what he's doing about 2000," shrugs an aide. One reason: aversion to igniting an intraparty civil war. "Powell's run would trigger an ideological bloodbath," frets GOP pollster William McInturff.

In Congress, where the eternal flame of ambition never flickers, there's no shortage of Republicans with White House ambitions. New Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a smooth-talking, deal-cutting Mississippian, is a rising star. Conservatives also like Tennessee's Fred Thompson, a folksy former actor with charisma, and Arizona's John McCain, a former Vietnam POW whose Western cool masks a tough partisan streak. House Budget Committee Chair John R. Kasich, a young, passionately conservative Ohioan, is plotting a run. But skeptics feel that Kasich is too green--and raise doubts about the viability of other Beltway candidates in a time of voter antipathy to Washington.

That leaves the governors. If their regional popularity holds, Michigan's John Engler and Wisconsin's Tommy G. Thompson might seek the prize in 2000. Amd if New Jersey's Christine Todd Whitman, a pro-choice Republican, wins big next year, moderates will agitate for her to seek the White House. The other great centrist hope: Massachusetts' William F. Weld, who lost his bid for a Senate seat but remains a force. Says the GOP's Weber: "I predict Republicans will see a major pro-choice contender in 2000."

New Hampshire kaffeeklatsches may soon be packed with other Republicans, including '96 retreads Pat Buchanan and Lamar Alexander. But while the 2000 crowd goes scouting, a more prosaic task awaits rank-and-file Republicans: getting the party's message back in synch with voters who find "revolution" a deeply unsettling concept, and reconstructing an electoral base that in a few years has gone from being considered a "lock" to merely being luckless.

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