Republicans grimace at blow to image after claim of vote payoffs in N.J. Campaign leader backs off statement

November 11, 1993|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- After years in which Republicans have been portrayed by their opponents as a white people's party that practices electoral dirty tricks, party loyalists seethed with fury and frustration yesterday over a public account by a GOP renegade of campaign tactics in New Jersey.

The strategist, Edward J. Rollins, issued a statement yesterday saying that he had exaggerated the truth when he told reporters that Christine Todd Whitman's gubernatorial campaign had paid black ministers in an attempt to suppress the black vote.

But Mr. Rollins, the campaign manager, did not offer a new version of events, and the merest suggestion that such an operation had taken place threatened to revive bitter memories within the black community of perceived past slights, including the advertisements featuring Willie Horton, a convicted rapist, that the GOP used against Michael S. Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign.

Among Republicans, apprehensions about such a backlash were intensified by resentment toward Mr. Rollins, an adept but often boastful operative whom many have never forgiven for his abandonment of the party in 1992 to run Ross Perot's presidential campaign.

"It seems to me that every time the party starts to make gains in this area, someone goes out and pulls a boneheaded stunt like this that costs us credibility in the black community," said Roger Stone, a leading Republican political consultant.

Mr. Stone, who has frequently clashed with Mr. Rollins, described him yesterday as "radioactive."

The mystifying retraction by Mr. Rollins, who said yesterday that his remarks "left the impression of something that was not true and did not occur," made it impossible to know whether Republicans had indeed tried to discourage black voters.

But as President Clinton led Democrats in assailing the effort as "terribly wrong" if it indeed took place, independent analysts and angry Republicans said they believed that whether it turned out to have happened or not, Mr. Rollins' initial confession was bound to take a toll.

"It's a damn shame," said a prominent Republican operative who refused to be quoted by name. He described the comments as "a disaster" and said that even if Mr. Rollins had simply been boasting, "it makes us look like Republicans are playing the race card again."

The murkiness surrounding the episode left officials at the Republican National Committee at odds about what position to stake out, and by last night, its chairman, Haley Barbour, had still not issued a formal statement for the party.

But while Mr. Clinton was careful to include a caveat with his remarks, he and other Democrats were quick yesterday to seize upon the political opening.

Since the mid-1980s, Republicans have spoken loudly and often about their determination to enlist more black Americans into the party's ranks. But the effort has been hindered by incidents and policy positions seen as showing hostility toward black Americans.

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