SAN DIEGO — AS little as six months ago, Republicans looked invincible. They had recaptured Congress; their ideas were sweeping the country. All that was left was to capture the White House.
While plenty of optimism still powers the Republican Party, undercurrents of doubt swirled in this sun-drenched port city this weekend over whether the Contract With America is still popular with the electorate and whether front-runner Sen. Bob Dole can defeat President Clinton.
"To win, Republicans must not back down," Michigan Gov. John Engler, one of the party's rising stars, told the three-day gathering of the Republican National Committee. He warned that "if the Republican Party gives up on reform, if we fail to keep the promises embodied in the Contract With America, Clinton may well get reelected."
But party leaders are also clearly worried about the political damage they have suffered during the budget crisis, particularly among senior citizens, women, and the working class. Clinton's success in blaming Congress for the budget impasse angers the GOP.
"Lies, distortion, mean-spiritedness, fear - that's their game plan," party co-chairwoman Evelyn McPhail says of their Democratic foes. To counter this, the Republicans will argue that they are the only sincere advocates of the change voters sought in 1992, and that it is Clinton's vetoes of Republican-sponsored legislation that now stand in the way of bold reform.
But beneath their public confidence, GOP leaders privately express growing doubts about their ability to recapture the White House. Those concerns center on two worries - that Senator Dole is not a strong candidate, and that the Democrats may succeed in painting the Republicans as a party of extremists.
"There's a lot of nervousness out here," the party chairman of one Western state said, gesturing at a reception of celebrating party leaders. "People like Dole but they don't think he can win. They'd like someone who can, but they don't know who he is."
Some party activists worry that Dole will be hard-pressed to portray himself as an opponent of the status-quo, given his long years in Washington. Governor Engler, who has not endorsed any candidate, responds that "Senator Dole can communicate rather effectively an agenda of change." But he also suggests that Dole can only do this by avoiding a budget compromise with Clinton, allowing him to campaign instead on the record of a legislative package "that in many cases will have been passed by the Congress and vetoed by the president."
The Republican strategy will be to focus on core issues they believe led to their victory in the '94 elections - a balanced budget, reducing the role of government, welfare reform, and tax cuts.
Party strategists touted the example of Tom Campbell, who easily won a special election for California's 15th Congressional District this past November, against a concerted Democratic Party campaign that attempted to link him to House Speaker Newt Gingrich. Mr. Campbell's victory proves "the anti-Newt strategy doesn't work," Engler said. Instead, he argued, it showed that "the Contract With America ... is a winning agenda."
But Campbell, as he stressed in an interview before speaking to the meeting, hardly campaigned on that agenda. "The lesson of my victory is be a moderate Republican who insists on balancing the budget," he said, pointing to his support for environmental protection, abortion rights, and his belief that balancing the budget should come before any tax cuts.
The Republican nominating convention will convene here on Aug. 12. Some party officials are anxious not to repeat the experience of the '92 Houston convention when candidate Pat Buchanan and other supporters of the social conservative agenda favored by the Christian right dominated the proceedings. Some believe this played a key role in President Bush's defeat, particularly with women turned off by the attack on abortion.
"Many of us were upset [about the 1992 convention]," says Pennsylvania State Chairwoman Anne Austine. "People were calling me and asking why did we allow a convention that discriminated against people."
Privately, some party leaders suggest that Mr. Buchanan and other party firebrands will find themselves speaking at odd hours, not in the prime-time glare they had in 1992. "When they plan this convention," one state party chairman says, "they're not going to have a nuts' night out."
The desire to dampen controversy was evident as well in the stern refusal to consider a resolution submitted by the Republican Coalition for Choice, an abortion-rights group within the party, calling for an open debate of the party's position on abortion rights. The Republican Party platform currently takes a strong pro-life position against those rights.
Chairwoman of the coalition Susan Cullman does not share the confidence that party leaders express that the Republicans can win a majority of women's votes. In 1992, some 28 percent of Republican women didn't vote for Bush, she notes. "I'm worried that it could be higher in 1996."