WASHINGTON -- House Republicans, fearing an election catastrophe Tuesday and still embittered by their party's split over Congress' deficit-reduction bill, are already embroiled in a leadership fight over who should guide their 1992 campaigns.
Partly at issue is where to lay the blame for an election season in which House Republicans may lose up to a dozen seats of their already small minority.
A larger question also at stake is whether the more moderate wing of the party, which stood with President Bush on the budget vote and was repudiated, will be able to reassert some measure of control in the House.
A drive to oust Representative Guy Vander Jagt, R-Mich., from his longtime post as chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee was launched last weekend by Representative Don Sundquist of Tennessee, a four-term incumbent who had been eyeing the job off and on for two years.
Sundquist backers insist that the White House is not involved, and Bush aides concur.
But success of their effort would amount to a vote of no confidence in Edward J. Rollins, the committee's chief strategist.
Mr. Rollins complained about the president's decision to abandon his no-new-taxes pledge, and Mr. Bush has refused to work with him.
Mr. Vander Jagt said he suspects that both he and Mr. Rollins may be the victims of White House sabotage.
He complained yesterday to reporters that Mr. Bush seemed to be overreacting to news accounts that barely mentioned Mr. Rollins.
And he noted that Mr. Sundquist had told him just two weeks ago that he had decided to not enter a contest against him.
"Someone turned Sundquist around," Mr. Vander Jagt observed.
"Someone" was actually dozens of Mr. Sundquist's colleagues dTC who approached him last Saturday, shortly before Congress adjourned, with a special appeal to contest the chairmanship, according to Ralph Perrey, a spokesman for the challenger.
Pointing to a net gain of only about three GOP seats per election cycle during Mr. Vander Jagt's 16-year tenure, as well as the prospective losses this year, they argued that the operation needs new blood.
"We think we can do a better job," said Representative Bob Livingston, R-La., who is serving as Mr. Sundquist's campaign manager for the leadership contest, which will be decided by the newly elected House Republicans in December.
At a breakfast session yesterday, during which he sought to play down the impact of another Republican setback next Tuesday, Mr. Vander Jagt vowed to fight for his post.
"I don't think you send in a scrub team when you're coming up to the Super Bowl," Mr. Vander Jagt said, referring to the 1992 elections, in which Republicans have long hoped to finally claim a majority in the House.
"You don't send a boy to do a man's job."
But it is precisely Mr. Vander Jagt's long tenure as head of the committee that helps recruit, train, finance and elect Republican candidates to Congress that is cited by some of Mr. Sunquist's backers as a major reason for replacing him.
"I think his Super Bowl analogy is a good one," Mr. Perrey said. "Looking at the NRCC's performance over the last decade, you certainly can't say this is a team that is ready for the playoffs."
One of the strong undercurrents at play here is that Mr. Rollins, who was hired by Mr. Vander Jagt on a four-year, $250,000-a-year contract, is considered to be allied closely with Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., the House minority whip, who led the revolt against the president's initial budget agreement with Congress.
Ousting Mr. Vander Jagt -- and discrediting Mr. Rollins -- is seen by some of the House members supporting Mr. Sundquist as a way to stop Mr. Gingrich from gaining even more power in the House, a goal with which the White House is not unsympathetic, Bush aides said.