Washington — Republicans see a "once-in-a-lifetime" chance to grasp the nation's political reins in 1980. GOP leaders meeting here to plan the party's July 14-18 convention say there hasn't been a year like this since 1932, when the situation was reversed, with Democratic prospects at a peak.
Republican optimism over 1980 opportunity -- to take the White House, approach control of Congress, and find GOP policies aligned with public support on issues -- cannot be written off as mere election year hyperbole, say neutral political observers.
"This is an extraordinary time of opportunity for the Republicans," says Everett Ladd, director of the Roper Center, a multi-university opinion research program.
"Everything is well suited for a minority party," Mr. Ladd says. "The other side is losing its ideological cohesiveness. The Democratic Party is losing confidence in the reason for its being. In the last 15 years the formulas of New Deal liberalism have lost strength.
"The country is waiting for some new integrating political idea," Mr. Ladd says. "The electorate is floating around seeking someone to lead it."
Republicans are heartened by national surveys taken for the party the past month showing an increase in voters identifying themselves as Republican, a greater willingness to join the Republican Party in the future, and high ratings for traditional values such as Republicans espouse.
A key finding of the survey, which was taken for the Republican National Committee by Tully Plesser's New york polling-based firm, Consensus Inc., was an increase in the numbers of Americans looking to the Republicans for change. With the public disturbed that the country is not on the right track, the survey found 42 percent of voters indicate the Republicans are more likely to change the way things are run in this country -- compared with 24 percent looking to the Democrats for change (22 percent indicated that neither party is likely to change the way things are being run, and 12 percent had no opinion).
High among GOP assets for 1980 is an absence of the feuding that has marred recent presidential election efforts.
"Detroit is going to be a fun, not a fighting, convention," says Utah party leader Bill Stevenson. "The problems conservative saw in 1976 are the problems moderates see coming to pass today -- inflation, a weak defense, unemployment, no national direction."
"This is a watershed year," says Dave Norcross, chairman of the New Jersey Republican Party. "There hasn't been a year like this since 1932." Mr. Norcross sees New Jersey returning to the Republican presidential column this year behind Ronald Reagan, who appeals to that state's large ethnic and blue-collar electorate.
"The prospect of winning makes any infighting at the convention superfluous," Mr. Norcross says. "As Reagan pulls in moderates like me, it broadens his following. He's forced to accommodate them."
"Maine was with George Bush," says the state's Republican leader, Hattie Bickmore. "But Maine will back the nominee. The par ty's spirit is up, not the feeling we're going to lose it."
However, while the Republicans' opportunity for 1980 appears large, the GOP leaders have yet to demonstrate they can take advantage of it, Mr. Ladd cautions.
"The Republicans must put forth the right candidates, and they especially need a public philosophy," Mr. Ladd says. "A public philosophy was what the New Deal offered the Democrats. A party becoming the majority party needs something positive, something more than general disfavor for the existing majority party. A No. 2 party traditionally is only a reactive party."
As the strength of party ties diminishes among voters, and as ethnic and other binds to parties decline, a party like the GOP is cut loose from its historic disadvantages, Mr. Ladd says.
"In the first decades of this century, the Republicans guessed wrong on economics, the role of government, and on ethnic issues," he says. "These debits are being removed, and the resistance to Republicanism is less severe. But it is not yet clear how this will translate into party recruits for the Republicans."