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Whatever happened to the conservative tide?

By Charlotte SaikowskiStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 15, 1988

New Orleans

REPUBLICANS have won four of the last five presidential elections. But as the party faithful gather to crown their nominee this week, there is an underlying uncertainty about their fortunes in 1988. It stems in part from these factors: The Republican Party has lost some strength since 1984, when a ``realignment'' of political parties was widely heralded. Republicans, besides the presidency, hold 23 governorships today, including such key states as Texas, California, and Florida. GOP voter registrations are up nationwide.

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But although the gap between the Democratic and Republican Parties has narrowed, the Republicans have not gained majority status, and it is far from certain that the huge support that crossover Democrats, especially blue-collar ethnics, and independents gave Ronald Reagan in 1984 can be transferred to George Bush, who does not carry the same appeal.

The largest segment of the American people still label themselves ``conservative'' (roughly 40 percent). But polls show that Americans today want a slightly bigger, more affirmative role for government in Washington. Some analysts believe that the conservative ascendancy of recent years has peaked.

``The tide has begun to recede and we're seeing a transition to something else,'' says Kevin Phillips, editor of American Political Report, a conservative newsletter. ``It's not just eight years of Ronald Reagan but a changing cycle. ... There's no reason for blue-collar workers to be interested in George Bush. The basis of the conservative coalition laid down in '72 does not apply in '88.''

The voters in that coalition, Mr. Phillips argues, were concerned about such issues as a US sellout in Vietnam, racial and other minority quotas, big government, rising taxes, a weakened defense.

Now they're worried about health insurance, college education for their children, drugs, and possible loss of US economic preeminence to Japan.

Even representatives of the conservative right say that Reagan-style economic conservatism is over and that voters will be looking for the best manager of the nation's problems.

``The way the conservative movement came up through the '50s, '60s, and '70s - that era is over,'' says Paul Weyrich, chairman of the Free Congress Political Action Committee. ``Reagan-type conservatism will not be the conservatism of the future. It is clear the public wants activist government and those people that have solutions to real problems will be given a chance to govern.''

Not all political analysts see sharp ideological distinctions in the country, however. American voters, many argue, tend to be in the middle of the spectrum, with periodic swings toward more or toward less government activism.

``Everyone talks about conservative and liberal tides, but they are talking smoke,'' says John Petrocik, a professor at the University of California. ``A receding `tide' simply means a receding tide of antipathy to government. It's a cyclical thing.''

``The agenda has shifted in the direction of the Democrats,'' says William Schneider of the American Enterprise Institute. ``People want a more activist government, more d'etente with the Soviet Union - and that's due to the success of Ronald Reagan. Now 60 percent of the voters want change.''