GOP Unity May Crack On New Hampshire Granite

LET'S think for a minute about the parade of nine Republicans in Manchester, off and running for the presidency a full year before the New Hampshire primary. Beyond providing a diverting spectacle for Presidents' Day weekend, what are the implications for the larger Republican cause?

Spectacle it certainly was, even though it lacked several potential candidates, like the charismatic governors. Those present were obviously aware that no Republican has ever made it to the White House without winning the New Hampshire primary. None of the senators showed any awareness of another fact - that Republicans traditionally do not choose an incumbent senator for president.

All seemed intent on marking themselves out from the field by proclaiming some special quality - Senator Phil Gramm the most conservative, Senator Bob Dole the greatest war hero, Senator Arlen Specter the most pro-choice, Senator Richard Lugar the most global. Not to mention former Education Secretary Lamar Alexander as the most outside Washington and Pat Buchanan as probably the most strident.

But, there's a long year-and-a-half of the 104th Congress to go and Republicans are likely to be judged on their legislative record. The early eruption of campaign posturing may turn into polarization, especially in the Senate, that will leave the Republicans disunited in the lawmaking process.

Norman Ornstein, political scientist of the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, told me that the unity that served Republicans so well in November's election may begin to crumble as factions crystallize around presidential hopefuls. Signs of contention over the abortion issue are already evident. Mr. Ornstein believes that intra-party one-upmanship may create divisions on major issues like welfare, health reform, and even foreign policy.

With their slender edge in the Senate, the Republicans can hardly afford to see Senator Specter drifting off to the left, perhaps drawing away other moderates, while Senators Dole and Gramm compete on the right to be ``Mr. Conservative.'' Nor, could Dole feel entirely comfortable going off to campaign, leaving legislative management in the hands of Gramm's good friend Republican whip Trent Lott.

Normally, the majority party spends the preelection year building up a legislative record for its ticket to run on before plunging into campaign mode. But the perceived weakness of the incumbent President Clinton has his potential adversaries champing at the bit. Republicans' legislative unity may fracture under the stress of presidential posturing. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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