Bennett's appointment to head GOP not viewed as a conventional choice

November 20, 1990|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When William J. Bennett quit as the nation's drug czar, some disaffected conservatives were hoping he'd be their candidate against President Bush in the 1992 Republican primaries.

Instead, less than two weeks later, Mr. Bennett is Mr. Bush's candidate to head the Republican National Committee through the 1992 election.

Party leaders and Republican politicians generally praised the selection while acknowledging that Mr. Bennett, 47, is scarcely a conventional choice.

He has never run a political campaign in his life. And until five years ago, he was a registered Democrat.

"That's probably the concern of a lot of people," said Robert T. Bennett, the Ohio Republican Party chairman, who is unrelated to the incoming RNC head.

What Mr. Bennett does have is a knack for making himself heard and a strong following in the party's conservative wing.

"We have been desperately lacking somebody out there beating up on Democrats," said Eddie Mahe Jr., a former RNC executive director. The current RNC chairman, Lee Atwater, is seriously ill with a brain tumor; he is due to be given the ceremonial title of general chairman next year.

Some Republican strategists, reflecting on divisions within the party, think Mr. Bennett can help repair damage caused by the White House's mishandling of this summer's deficit negotiations.

"He can help assuage some of the disgruntlement on the right," said Roger Stone, a Republican political consultant. "This speaks to shoring up your base."

Some conservatives were ecstatic.

Morton Blackwell, national committeeman from Virginia and former aide to President Ronald Reagan, said he let out a whoop of delight when he learned of Mr. Bennett's selection.

But Howard Phillips, head of the Conservative Caucus and a Bush critic, predicted that giving Mr. Bennett such a visible post was designed to "seduce" conservatives with rhetoric but that it would do little to advance their agenda.

As a Cabinet member under Mr. Reagan and in his current job, Mr. Bennett has been an outspoken advocate of conservative social policies.

At a meeting of Republican governors last fall, he urged the GOP to keep its strict anti-abortion position despite polls indicating that most Americans believe women should be able to have abortions.

Mr. Bennett is to leave his job as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy the end of the month. He would formally assume his party duties in late January, when the RNC is to ratify his appointment in what is expected to be a formality.

An immediate challenge for Mr. Bennett will be to rebuild the headquarters staff, which was slashed by 25 percent last week in anticipation of poor fund-raising next year.

White House Chief of Staff John H. Sununu pushed hard for Mr. Bennett's appointment, according to administration aides. Mr. Bennett is said to have accepted the job after being assured by Mr. Bush that his voice would be heard in administration decisions over the next two years.

Some of Mr. Bennett's associates within the administration reportedly advised him not to take the job on grounds it might hurt plans he might have to become a candidate himself.

"He's going to be at loggerheads with the White House, a la Ed Rollins, in a short time," said Craig Shirley, a Republican consultant, in a reference to the controversial co-chairman of the party's congressional campaign committee.

Mr. Rollins angered the White House earlier this year by advising Republican candidates to distance themselves from Mr. Bush after the president accepted a budget plan that included higher taxes.

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