WHATEVER happened to what is sometimes called the Republican Presidential Party, the organization that from 1968 until Bill Clinton's election a dominant hold on the White House?
There had been a run of Republican presidencies - with two GOP presidents elected twice - interrupted only by Jimmy Carter's four-year tour. The Republicans resurged with Ronald Reagan. Then, after eight years, came George Bush with one term.
But it is not clear that President Clinton is another aberration and that the Republicans will be back at the top in 1996. GOP prospects for ousting Clinton in the next election look less than good, even though the president hasn't set the world on fire. There is a depletion in GOP ranks of a candidate who looks like a winner when compared with the charismatic Clinton.
Charisma alone doesn't win the day. But it appears that Clinton will be blessed with an improving if not prosperous economy. Charisma plus the economy will give him cards that are very hard to beat, unless the challenger is a particularly appealing candidate.
Jack Kemp might fill the bill. But he's remaining surprisingly quiet on the sidelines. A year ago he was being called the No. 1 possibility for '96. No more. And it is still to be proved whether his bumptious charm, which many people like, wears well.
Richard Cheney is beginning to look willing. He won points for his poise during the Gulf war. He's a brainy debater. But he is as dull as dishwater. He'll have to improve his speaking skills to keep people awake.
Will Dan Quayle run? More importantly, can a vice president who many considered to be a drag on a losing ticket become a winner as a presidential candidate?
Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas may well be the ``favorite'' potential candidate at the moment with many people. He does have a kind of charisma. No one can deliver a one-liner better or provide a TV sound bite more quickly or effectively. But in the heat of political combat Mr. Dole has shown a penchant for delivering cutting remarks that narrow his appeal.
Other possible candidates: Phil Gramm, Bill Bennett, Pat Buchanan, Lamar Alexander. But they don't appear to have what's needed to knock off Clinton.
Gen. Colin Powell might be just what the Republicans need. But he isn't showing outward interest in the presidency. Also, no one knows for sure whether he is a Republican, although many Republicans think he is.
The Republicans aren't throwing in the towel. At a Monitor breakfast Rep. Dick Armey of Texas, one of the top GOP leaders in the House, seemed confident that Clinton's legislative record would be enough to defeat him. He envisioned the president flailing and looking bad in his efforts to put forward health and crime initiatives.
Mr. Armey discussed the complex Arkansas banking and investment deal that touches the president and Mrs. Clinton. When asked, he refused to discuss the possibility of impeachment. But, he said, ``These things are like amoebas - they grow and grow and go off in other directions. There's a lot of breadth to this even at this point - how far does it go?'' His main interest, he said, is in a fair, independent probe.
Republican leaders like Armey, and like GOP National Chairman Haley Barbour at a subsequent breakfast, are avoiding making harsh judgments on the president in this probe. But they have to know that a scandal would be to the Republicans' advantage. They have to know that the way things are going politically - and with the field of possible presidential candidates - the prospects of winning in '96 are not that good.