Searching inward, GOP asks what's it all about Factions produce crisis of identity

January 31, 1993|By Paul West | Paul West,Washington Bureau Chief

ST. LOUIS -- The Republican Party these days resembles th Balkans after the breakup of the Soviet bloc. Even GOP veterans have trouble keeping track of the competing factions.

Out of the White House for the first time in 12 years, the Republicans have no dominant national figure, and no immediate prospect of finding one. While some Republicans worry that their party will be ripped apart by internal disputes, others describe something more like a collective identity crisis.

"We must go through the hard work of determining what it is we really are," said Richard N. Bond, the party's national chairman for the past two years, who jolted GOP leaders Friday with a farewell speech warning Republicans to change or face potential disaster.

Defeated parties usually go through such soul-searching periods. But the leadership vacuum caused by George Bush's defeat is highlighting fault lines in the Republican coalition and, some think, threatening to widen them.

The internal conflicts are overshadowing the party's continued growth below the presidential level, especially in the South. In last year's elections, Republicans held their own in the Senate, picked up 10 House seats and gained control of seven more state legislative chambers.

"We're in much better shape than a party that has just lost the White House -- the out party -- usually is," contends Haley Barbour, a party insider from Mississippi who was elected Friday as the new Republican national chairman.

But the magnitude of the rebuilding task awaiting Mr. Barbour could be glimpsed in a new national poll in which only 28 percent of voters identified themselves as Republicans. The survey, by Public Opinion Strategies, a Republican polling organization, was conducted last week, in the afterglow of the Clinton inauguration.

Its findings reflect the drop in Republican support among younger voters, working women, Westerners and those earning from $30,000 to $40,000 a year, all groups considered essential to the party's future success.

Another recent poll highlighted a different threat to the GOP: Four out of 10 Republicans say they would consider defecting to a new Ross Perot party if the Texas billionaire decided to run again for president in 1996.

Many Republican officials think that their party's only real problem was Mr. Bush, whom they fault for running a weak re-election campaign.

"Often, Bill Clinton sounded more like us than we did," Mr. Barbour told the Republican National Committee yesterday as party leaders wrapped up their first meeting since the November election.

The new chairman says Republicans don't need a massive overhaul of their message of lower taxes and a strong defense. But he suggested that Mr. Bush had abandoned the principles that carried the party to victory in the three prior presidential elections.

"We must learn the lesson of 1992," the new chairman said. "We Republicans have to stand for something."

Letting Americans know what they stand for won't be easy, with Democrats in charge of the White House and Congress. To a large degree, the Republicans' fate depends on President Clinton's performance.

"If Clinton does a great job, it won't really matter what the Republicans are up to," says Jim Pinkerton, a former Bush White House aide. "If Clinton does a bad job, Republicans will have to produce a leader. Politics works on personality."

At the moment, the new president's stumbling start is lifting Republican spirits and bolstering the argument of those who see little need for the party to change direction.

"Clinton's only been in there 10 days, and he's already done more to put us back together than anything we've done," said Ernest Angelo, a Republican committeeman from Texas.

Repairing party image

Party officials show a growing willingness to acknowledge that an image of intolerance cost them dearly at the polls last November. Gay-bashing from the podium of the 1992 GOP convention and the emphasis on "family values" in the campaign is blamed for driving away many voters, especially working women and those ages 18 to 24.

"There are some lessons that are taught best by a two-by-four upside the head," Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, the head of the GOP Senate campaign committee and a likely 1996 presidential contender, remarked yesterday.

The effort to repair the party's image is complicated by growing tensions between the religious right wing and the GOP's moderate-to-conservative establishment.

Some of these strains can be traced to gains made by the Christian Coalition, an organization based in Virginia Beach, Va., and linked to television evangelist Marion G. "Pat" Robertson, who ran unsuccessfully for the GOP nomination in 1988 and is expected to try again in 1996.

Infighting has broken out in a number of states, including Washington, Arizona, California, Florida, Texas, Kansas, Louisiana, Colorado and Virginia, as old-guard Republicans confront Christian activists trying to gain control of the party apparatus at the grass-roots level.

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