A Bid to Be the Hero of Moderate Republicans

Massachusetts Gov. William Weld makes a calculated move to win role on national stage

The has roared back on to the national political stage, but is anybody listening - and does it really matter?

Less than a week ago, Massachusetts Gov. William Weld's future was wrapped in uncertainty as the Clinton administration appeared to be backing away from nominating Mr. Weld, a moderate Republican, to be US ambassador to Mexico.

But after a fiery press conference in Boston this week, Weld has caught the attention of the White House - and the national media - at least temporarily. And he managed to: goad President Clinton, a Democrat, into fighting on his behalf; stand up to US Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, a conservative Republican who has vowed to block Weld's nomination; and issue a battle cry for, in Weld's own words, "the future of the Republican Party."

In the process, Weld, a two-term governor with national political aspirations, has warmed the hearts of progressive Republicans, who long to tilt the GOP away from right-wing conservatives. Twenty-three House Republicans wrote Helms asking him to let the nomination proceed.

But political analysts are divided on whether Weld's actions will have any sustained impact - either in securing the ambassador's post or in prompting a soul-searching debate within the Republican Party.

"I don't think this has any long-term consequences," says Robert Teeter, a veteran Republican pollster. "This is just insider game stuff, little skirmishes.

"It's not about the future of the Republican Party," he insists. "The future of the party is going to be debated over who gets nominated for president, over what kind of legislation gets passed in the House and Senate, and over what governors actually do in office. It's not going to be over whether Bill Weld gets confirmed as ambassador to Mexico."

But other observers say Weld has carved out a win-win position. The White House commitment is significant, considering the administration's record of backing down on appointments that face resistance. And by taking on Senator Helms, who has accused him of not being "ambassador quality," Weld has stood up to the conservative Republican establishment in a way other moderate GOP politicians have been reluctant to do.

"He will come out on top no matter what happens," says Bill Schneider, a political analyst with the American Enterprise Institute. "He becomes a political hero, if not a martyr. He's given himself a political future, even if it's not as president. He now becomes the de facto leader of the progressive wing of the Republican Party. He's the guy who did something, who stood up to Jesse Helms."

As head of the Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations, Helms holds confirmation hearings on nominations for ambassadorships. Helms has let it be known that he believes Weld is soft on drugs, and therefore not appropriate for a post in Mexico, which is a crossroads in international drug trafficking. However, no proof has been offered to back up that charge, and even many conservatives agree Weld has been tough on crime.

Instead, say many insiders, Helms's resistance is more likely based on a personal animosity - a dislike of Weld's blend of fiscal conservatism and progressive social stances, such as his support for abortion- and gay-rights. They suggest Helms was also irked by Weld's failure - during last year's Senate race - to pledge his support for Helms's chairmanship of the Foreign Relations Committee.

And those with even longer memories say Helms is still angry with Weld over remarks he made in 1988 when he resigned his post as assistant attorney general in the Reagan administration. Weld made comments to the press at the time that cast doubts on the integrity of his boss, then-Attorney General Edwin Meese III, who was facing legal troubles.

Weld's short-term future may well depend on whether Helms decides to "make Weld an object lesson in why you don't [skewer] other Republicans for the establishment press," in the words of one well-connected conservative, or whether Helms will "bargain" with the Clinton administration - allowing Weld to become ambassador in exchange for, say, a White House promise to cut US funds to the United Nations.

But whether Weld winds up in Mexico City or remains in Boston, no one - not even his most ardent supporters - is suggesting that he will be on the road to the White House any time soon.

"He's a very shrewd man," says Michael Cudahy, a Massachusetts-based media consultant who has worked with Weld. "I think he's looking at the year 2000 and understands there is absolutely no way the Republican Party is likely to nominate him" for president.

"This party still has a great deal of soul-searching to go through," he says. "I think Weld may be looking at 2004 or 2008."

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