Republicans focus on Fla. straw poll Major contenders run hard to capture win in nonbinding vote

November 18, 1995|By Paul West | Paul West,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

ORLANDO, Fla. -- As he prepares to vote in a high-stakes Republican nomination test today, Sid Foulke is nervously watching a more important struggle -- the budget battle in Washington.

The 55-year-old Florida Republican worries that his party's ambitious drive to shrink the size and scope of government is in danger of being stopped in its tracks.

"You'd be silly not to be concerned," Mr. Foulke, 55, an insurance broker from booming Osceola County, said hours before the Republican-led Congress gave final approval to a balanced budget President Clinton is sure to veto.

Mr. Foulke's jitters appear to be shared by many of the 3,400 Republican activists here this weekend with a single idea: to put a Republican back in the White House to complete their party's )) takeover of the federal government.

A nonbinding secret ballot, to be conducted among the delegates, has been called "the biggest political event of the year" by Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, who is favored to win it.

Surprisingly, some rank-and-file Republicans had heated words for House Speaker Newt Gingrich. The revolution's chief architect, they argued, may now be doing their cause more harm than good.

"He talks too much," muttered a supporter of another conservative, Patrick J. Buchanan. Others said Mr. Gingrich was behaving petulantly and needed to "grow up," as one Dole delegate put it.

The Florida Republicans were incensed by the speaker's admission that the partial shutdown of the government was the result, at least in part, of a perceived snub of Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Dole by Mr. Clinton aboard Air Force One.

Mr. Gingrich, who has not completely shut the door to a presidential run next year, is not on the straw ballot in Florida.

But nine other Republicans are, including all the major contenders who have invested weeks of time, and millions of dollars, on a contest whose perceived importance appears to have swollen beyond anyone's expectations.

Today's vote in the fourth-most-populous state is the last major test before the primaries and caucuses begin in February.

The outcome could affect the chances of one or more of the contenders as they seek to overcome Mr. Dole's early advantage in the race.

But the budget action in Washington threatens to overshadow those efforts or, at the least, complicate them.

Only three candidates made it to Orlando last night for a two-hour debate before the delegates, which was moderated by talk show host Larry King and carried live on CNN. Six others took part via television from Washington, including Mr. Dole and the other senators in the race, who were voting on the budget bill when the debate began and appeared partway through the program.

The forum, the first true debate of the GOP campaign, featured sharp exchanges between the Washington-based candidates and the outsiders in the contest, who accused the officeholders of failing to go far enough in changing government.

Patrick J. Buchanan, referring to the Republican senators as "you people," demanded to know why more hasn't been done to shut down entire federal departments and reform the congressional pension system.

"Give us a little time. We're trying," responded Mr. Dole, noting that the GOP had gained control of Congress this year for the first time in four decades and that "it may take more than one year or two years" to finish the job.

Mr. Dole, forced to defend himself on charges that he had voted to raise taxes 16 times during his career in Washington, responded that he had voted 30 times since 1985 to cut taxes.

Magazine publisher Steve Forbes claimed that, despite the GOP takeover in Congress, "it's back to business as usual" in Washington. "When the [TV] lights go out and they [the senators] go back to the cloakrooms, taxes go up and spending seems to go up," he said.

For his part, Mr. Dole took a sharp jab at Lamar Alexander, a former Education Department secretary who now says he wants to shut down his old agency. The Kansas senator, who voted against creating the department in the first place, reminded Mr. Alexander that Congress had voted to increase the department's budget by 40 percent during his tenure as secretary "so he must have liked it at that time."

Although Mr. Dole remained in Washington, supporters said that reinforced his image as a leader of the Republican revolution and, in turn, would persuade undecided delegates to go his way.

At least one rival strategist agreed. "They could make the argument that people need to stick with Dole to preserve Republican unity," said Tom Rath, an adviser to Mr. Alexander's campaign.

Up to one-fourth of the delegates claim to be undecided. Many said they were trying to make up their minds among Mr. Dole, Mr. Gramm and Mr. Alexander.

Mr. Gramm, struggling to preserve his status as Mr. Dole's main challenger, flew here from Washington late Thursday and was on hand yesterday morning to greet arriving delegates. He returned to Washington late in the day.

Today's nonbinding ballot has no bearing on the selection of Florida delegates to next year's national convention; that will happen in March, when the state holds its primary election.

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