Sauerbrey & Co. must decide whether to court right wing or pursue Republican 'big tent' strategy

May 31, 1998|By Paul Delaney

THE dilemma facing Maryland Republicans, indeed, the GOP everywhere, was evident when Ellen Sauerbrey's front-running campaign for governor piggybacked a visit to Baltimore with one by Oliver North this spring. The problem is, how close can a candidate get to the extreme right wing without alienating moderate voters in the party at election time.

Asked whether the controversial Mr. North would be invited back to campaign, the Sauerbrey camp was hesitant and noncommittal. Understandably so. But the little toe-dance with the retired colonel, Reagan White House aide and Iran-contra figure illustrates the pickle Republicans are in.

The GOP's leading contender in the race for governor of Florida, Jeb Bush, is reckoning with the same issues. Like Ms. Sauerbrey, he lost a close one in 1994. And, similar to her, as she attempts to show a softer, gentler side to the public, his approach has changed this time around. He, too, is trying not to be too close to single-issue but powerful right-wingers, especially those non-big-tent, litmus test types whose money and votes can usually turn GOP primaries.

Four years ago, the son of former President George Bush was an unabashed, hard-nosed critic of social programs; he favored scrapping the federal Education Department and locking up criminals and throwing away the key. He lost to Gov. Lawton Chiles, who cannot succeed himself. He came off as insensitive to the problems of ordinary people. Sound familiar, Maryland?

Today, in what must be unbearable for right-wingers to witness, a chastened Jeb Bush, acknowledging that what he is doing may be "outside my comfort zone," nevertheless is reaching out to groups he ignored last time. He advocates restoring compassion to children's welfare, and he has visited schools and shelters for abused women. Phony? Perhaps, but that's for Florida voters to decide.

Feeling betrayed

This is not the kind of thing Oliver North Republicans like to see. Right-wingers have lately been showing their discontent with the way they perceive the party has abandoned the conservative agenda. The essentially white religious fundamentalists feel betrayed on abortion, a school prayer amendment to the Constitution, gay rights, school choice and vouchers, among other issues. The Christian Coalition appears to have abandoned the "big tent" idea that welcomed minorities, disbanding its programs aimed at attracting African-Americans and Catholics.

James Dobson, a right-wing Christian broadcaster, recently warned Republicans that they "ought to lose" if they do not push the conservative agenda, and he threatened to take his support elsewhere.

Certainly, Mr. Dobson and cohorts must be beside themselves over the activity of some members of Congress. Consider Rep. J.C. Watts, for example. The black congressman from Oklahoma and darling of the 1994 Republican Convention has to be somewhat of a disappointment, or at the least a conundrum, on affirmative action. He maintains that he continues to be against it. Yet, he has toned down his rhetoric, fought with Ward Connerly (this year's black darling of the white right) over California Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action measure, and gads! teamed up with Georgia Rep. John Lewis, former chairman of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (yes, SNCC, from the 1960s) to argue on behalf of affirmative action.

Most notably, though, Mr. Watts, almost single-handedly and miraculously, held at bay his extremist colleagues who would have easily voted to dismantle federal affirmative action. The attempt is not over; they may still do it (fight on, J.C.). His argument to his conservative brethren: replace affirmative action with what? My own belief is that many such conservatives would not be too unhappy to see a return to the day of little or no integration. Fight on, J.C.

In Maryland, Ms. Sauerbrey and her primary opponent, Howard County executive Charles I. Ecker, and other Republicans, as well, must decide how to deal with the right wing dilemma when the pressure is really applied as the political season progresses. She has indicated that she is trying to be less ideological and doctrinaire, to shuck the "Iron Lady" tag. In their debate two weeks ago, she and Mr. Ecker touted ethics as a major issue. That's an easy one: Even Jerry Springer is for ethics in government.

It remains to be seen whether the GOP front-runner will be able to prove that she is not the right-wing extremist who's out of touch with the voters that Gov. Parris Glendening painted four years ago. Will the visit by New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani next month represent the counter to Oliver North? The Sauerbrey campaign plans another piggyback: Mr. Giuliani will be keynote speaker at the city's Republican Central Committee's annual $25-a-plate dinner, and her campaign has latched on to him for some fund-raising events.

Mario's pal

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