Dole Struggles to Hone Message as Republicans Fret About Fall Elections

The same Republicans who only a year ago demonstrated remarkable party unity are suddenly behaving like, well, Democrats.

In just the past few days, New York Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, a senior adviser to the Dole campaign, criticized two prominent GOP figures. A high-profile religious conservative, Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition, hinted at a softer position on abortion, roiling many social conservatives. Ohio Gov. George Voinovich, frequently mentioned as a possible No. 2 on the ticket, suggested the party's standardbearer-to-be should be talking more about lowering the deficit than gas taxes.

Many in the party say all this merely proves that the GOP is the real political "big tent," an organization that gives full hearing to a diversity of viewpoints, and that all the banter is healthy this early in an election year.

But others - including a growing number of Republicans - say the apparent disunity reflects internal disenchantment with the party's presumed nominee, Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas, whom they fault for not yet articulating a decisive message the GOP can rally around.

Both explanations may be right. The GOP's current troubles may simply reflect a party in the middle of a leadership transition. For 18 months, House Speaker Newt Gingrich set the tone. Now that task falls to Dole, whose personal style and election-year priorities cast a different hue over the party.

"To say people aren't concerned would be a major mistake," says Ron Kaufman, the Massachusetts representative to the Republican National Committee. "But understand, this is the funk season. As a party, we have a good record to run on. There is no cohesion of message yet, but Bob Dole is now the head of the party, and he'll bring the forces of the party together. It takes a while."

If recent elections are any guide, Republicans would be wasting their time worrying about Dole's deficit in the polls - now hovering around 20 percent.

True, in the last 60 years no president has enjoyed so broad a margin as Clinton's and lost reelection. But in an age of seemingly constant voter swings, opinion polls - especially this early - have little meaning. At this time in 1992, Mr. Clinton trailed President Bush by 18 points.

Furthermore, the electoral map isn't nearly as uneven. By Republican estimates, based on the past several elections, Dole should have the advantage across the South, most of the mountain states, and the Northwest.

The Republicans hold 31 statehouses, including those in vital battleground states such as Wisconsin, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. While governors may not control the voters in their states, they do have grass-roots political organizations that will be valuable to the Dole campaign.

"Bill Clinton has to win everything that's up for grabs," says Mike Hellon, the Arizona representative to the RNC. "We'll need Gov. George Voinovich to pull it out for us in Ohio, Gov. Jim Edger in Illinois, Gov. George Bush in Texas, etc. That's the real strength of our party."

Still, there's the matter of Dole's message and party unity, which Mr. Hellon admits troubles him.

"I was for Sen. Phil Gramm [for president] because he articulated fairly clear what direction he wanted to lead the country," he says. "Bob Dole is not addressing a clear program."

Dole may now be getting more aggressive. In a speech Friday night, he slammed Clinton on issues ranging from abortion to foreign policy.

The presumed GOP nominee also has put his party on the offensive with a call to repeal a gasoline tax Clinton imposed in 1993. He staged an event Saturday at a Virginia gas station and plans to introduce legislation in the Senate tomorrow.

But Dole's weekend rhetoric was surrounded by party division. There was Governor Voinovich urging more attention to the federal deficit. There was Mr. D'Amato, chairman of Dole's national steering committee, causing the campaign some embarrassment by saying that Speaker Gingrich "misread the 1994 elections" and that "the whole Republican Party as been set back on its heels."

The gap within the party over abortion is also widening. Dole chose a staunch anti-abortionist, US Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, to head the platform committee at the convention. But as the nominee to be, Dole stands between two clashing sides of the party.

At least three moderate governors vow to eliminate the party's plank calling for a right-to-life amendment to the Constitution. Maverick presidential contender Pat Buchanan vows to preserve it. And now, the leader of the powerful Christian Coalition, Ralph Reed, has thrown new ambiguity into the debate, hinting that he might accept an amendment that allowed for rare exceptions.

These signs of unease within the party will cease, some Republicans say, once Dole focuses his message.

"As soon as he starts talking, we'll do a lot better," says Todd Harris, spokesman for the California Republican Party.

Expect Dole to lay out his core themes within a few weeks - and the focus to be smaller government and fewer taxes. The candidate has cribbed in recent days off a study by the conservative Washington-based Heritage Foundation suggesting that the economy, which grew at 2.8 percent in the first quarter of this year, would have grown much more vigorously were it not for Clinton's 1993 stimulus package, which included several targeted tax increases.

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