Whitman, GOP's scramble to shine put issues on hold



WASHINGTON -- The choice of Gov. Christine Todd Whitman of New Jersey to deliver the rebuttal to President Clinton the other night speaks volumes about the Republican Party at the moment.

Whitman is, of course, a rising star in her party -- a telegenic woman who has shown she can win in a major industrial state by promising to reduce taxes. She is on everyone's short list of potential vice presidential candidates in 1996, and her gubernatorial campaign in 1993 was widely and successfully imitated by other Republicans last fall.

But she is also a strong and outspoken supporter of abortion rights, a position that would have effectively disqualified her from any national role in her party even two years ago.

The fact that she was chosen for such national visibility suggests two things about the Republican Party today. One obviously is that it makes sense for the party to pay more attention to state governors and what is happening outside of Washington.

The more significant, however, may be that the Republicans are ready to put social issues such as abortion rights on the back burner so they can concentrate on demonstrating their ability to govern. Even the leaders of the Christian Coalition are using conciliatory language in talking about Republicans with whom they disagree on abortion.

As Lyn Nofziger, veteran Republican professional and longtime Whitman friend, said, "I think both sides in this stupid fight in the Republican Party have finally wised up."

One piece of supporting evidence for that view is the fact that the House Republicans left such issues as abortion and school prayer out of the "Contract with America," which is now the controlling dogma of the new congressional majority. And Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich has decided to forget his earlier promise to bring a prayer amendment before the House by July 4.

All of this contrasts sharply with the tone and rhetoric of the Republican convention at Houston in 1992, where the hard moralistic line taken by so many spokesmen offended many mainstream moderate Republicans as well as independent voters.

The difference today is that the Republicans have just won an overwhelming victory and been given an opportunity to show what they can do. One of the reasons for choosing Whitman, Gingrich said later, was that she has begun cutting taxes and doing the kinds of things Republicans want to do at the federal level.

"She clearly is a very articulate and attractive advocate for our cause," he said.

Whether this new prominence results in Whitman becoming a serious possibility for the Republican ticket next year remains to be seen. The resistance to a woman on the ticket in both parties is clear in the fact that there have been only two occasions in which one has been seriously considered -- in 1976 when Anne Armstrong was on Republican President Gerald Ford's short list and in 1984 when Democratic nominee Walter F. Mondale chose then-Rep. Geraldine Ferraro.

But in each case, the presidential candidate was running 30 percent behind his opponent in the opinion polls and thinking in terms of, in football parlance, throwing the long bomb in an attempt to change the whole dynamics of the campaign. That is unlikely to be the case when the Republicans choose their 1996 nominee at San Diego next year.

Whitman's situation is somewhat different, however. Her political credentials as a big state governor are obviously stronger than ,, those acquired by Ferraro in the House or Armstrong as a party official and as ambassador to Great Britain.

The prospect of a woman on the ticket also may be enhanced by the decline in the importance of national security issues in presidential campaigns with the end of the Cold War. One of the arguments made against women in the past was that they would not be "tough" enough to act as commander in chief -- a line that has been compromised by, among others, Margaret Thatcher.

Although Whitman had held only local and appointive offices before she became governor, she has been involved in Republican politics for years and is the daughter of the late Webster Todd, a prominent party leader 30 years ago. But her prime credential is that she has shown she can run and win as a moderate on social issues who is tough on crime and spending.

Whitman keeps saying that she has no interest in the vice presidency, which is what they always say. But she didn't get where she is today by being shy.

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