BILOXI, Miss. -- After weeks of largely collective restraint, many of the nation's most prominent Republicans unleashed scathing attacks on President Clinton this weekend, asserting that his alleged relationship with a White House intern raised questions about his moral fitness for office.
Until now, many leading Republicans had been careful to stay silent regarding the ever-changing accusations swirling about Clinton. But party leaders addressing the Southern Republican Leadership Conference, an audience of more than 1,600 mostly conservative Republicans from 13 states, could not resist firing biting partisan salvos at the president.
Several asserted, for example, that Clinton is an appalling role model for children.
The intensity of the critiques may stem, at least in part, from frustration among Republicans that the accusations and investigations have not eroded Clinton's impressive job-approval standing in the polls.
But several speakers were clearly calibrating their comments to this core Republican audience in efforts to gain advantage in the early positioning for the 2000 presidential race.
The political spectacle here may also serve as a preview of the midterm elections as Republicans search for ways to set themselves apart from Democrats.
While some speakers talked of the usual Republican brew of issues such as cutting taxes, the rebukes of Clinton were the only unified message at this biennial gathering.
Judging by the energetic response from the conservatives here, the uproar over Monica Lewinsky, a former White House intern, has at the very least reaffirmed the notion that one of the most effective ways to excite loyal members of a political party is to ridicule rivals.
Former Vice President Dan Quayle drew cheers of approval when he made several jokes about the accusations enveloping the president. "My friends," he said, "I'm proud to announce that I have a very tough anti-crime proposal for our party. And here's the centerpiece of our anti-crime plan: Three interns -- and you're out!"
But Quayle devoted much of his speech to stern comments about what he called a "disgusting situation" in which, he said, Clinton has forfeited his moral authority.
"The presidency requires total focus, total commitment, total concentration," he said. "Now, we have a president who has lost credibility with the American people, who is severely distracted doing his job."
Steve Forbes, the magazine publisher who is preparing his second run for the Republican presidential nomination, fired up the crowd, saying, "Has there ever been a sharper contrast between the goodness of America and the corruption and the shadiness and the sordidness that we have in the White House today?"
At a breakfast yesterday morning, Sen. Fred Thompson of Tennessee, chairman of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee, quipped, "I want to make it clear: I'm not in charge of all governmental affairs."
Pub Date: 3/01/98