Reagan's GOP triumph -- end of lean times for party conservatives

Ronald Reagan's nomination as Republican presidential candidate in Detroit fulfilled a 16-year longing of his party's right wing for power. GOP conservatives, frustrated in their efforts since the 1964 loss by nominee Barry Goldwater, had a lot to celebrate in Detroit last night. They not only got their nominee and the right to bid for the White House in November, but they also heavily embroidered their conservative philosophy on the GOP campaign banner, the party platform.

Ironically, Mr. Reagan's main political challenge in Detroit has become how to let the conservative faithful have their day of glory and still assert his own right to lead them by saying "no" to further demands that might compromise his election.

The vice-presidential choice lingered partly because Mr. Reagan found it hard to impose his will on the faction he championed, party insiders here said. The bid to former President Ford -- cut off by a Ford signal Tuesday before it reached him, then the subject of a day- long lobbying effort Wednesday and a rumored draft on the convention floor -- would have saved Mr. Reagan from having to decide between a conservative or moderate running mate. And it would have saved him from having to choose George Bush, the logical candidate with whom he reportedly does not feel comfortable.

Conservative operatives in his own camp participated in the efforts to veto moderate Sen. Howard H. Baker Jr., and then George Bush. The question became whether he would allow the conservatives to continue their veto string or impose his power of decision by picking a running mate who would broaden the party appeal and give him a better chance to win in the fall.

And, supporters and observers began to ask, how much would his administration yield in policy decisions later?

Meanwhile, many of the GOP conservatives here feel, despite their obvious success with Mr. Reagan's nomination, that their conservative message is not yet clearly getting through to the public. They feel impelled to push their brand of conservatism harder, on guard against what they see as a sneak liberal counterattack.

"They've been beating us up so long with words," says Illinois Congressman Philip Crane of the liberals. "They say they're moderate, and we're ultras, Neanderthals.

"They're really liberals, but they call themselves moderates. They started out five years ago as 'fiscal conservatives' and 'social liberals.' Now they call themselves 'social moderates.'"

Referring to a passage in the new party platform mentioning "traditional family values and the sanctity of innocent human life," Mr. Crane complained: "To our liberal friends these are buzz words -- for 'right to life,' and so forth. They say we are grasping, greedy, indifferent to the problems of the world."

The crux of the problem for GOP conservatives in Detroit was how to follow up their success, many of their leaders acknowledged.

They were pleased so far. "What we really want is to elect someone who's an instinctive conservative," said a leader of the Michigan delegation. "Reagan's a gut conservative. And we have an excellent platform."

Though united behind Reagan, the conservatives found themselves divided over a vice-presidential choice, with no mechanism for coalescing behind a single running-mate selection. What is lumped together as "conservative" is really a loose alliance of conservative factions, many responding to single issues like gun control and abortion, political observers note.

Mr. Reagan also seemed to be struggling this week to follow up his nomination win with concrete leadership.

He did recoup from his failure to attend the recent National Association for the Advancement of Colored People gathering in Miami by inviting NAACP director Benjamin Hooks to address the GOP convention.

And the Reagan forces "rehabilitated" former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a Reagan partisan -- forming a link to the Nixon- Ford administrations, in which foreign policy was a Republican strong suit. Mr. Kissinger, in effect, offered his services and foreign policy experience to a Reagan candidacy seen as weak in that regard.

But Mr. Reagan's campaign management system -- a committee that supposedly works by consensus -- was seen here as failing him in its handling of vice-presidential selection, matched by his personal failure to act decisively.

The Ford overture was characterized by a close observer as "at least one part genuine bid to forge a dream ticket, two parts Machiavellian attempt to derail a consensus building for Bush, and several parts ineptitude." The result was at least a temporary Ford rebuff and the stigma of compromise for the eventual nominee.

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