Conservatives are in a quandary. After 25 years of unchallenged leadership by Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, they no longer have a clear champion. There is no one who electrifies the crowds, unites the conservative movement, and offers the same kind of inspiring vision.
Congressman Jack Kemp wants to be that leader. He announces his campaign for the White House today.
But Mr. Kemp has a bumpy road ahead. On the right, the Rev. Pat Robertson, former Gov. Pierre S. du Pont IV of Delaware, and former Sen. Paul Laxalt of Nevada may fight Kemp for support. A divisive battle could ensue.
Even moderates, like Vice-President George Bush and Sen. Robert Dole of Kansas, show considerable strength among conservatives. Mr. Bush, for example, has won the support of the Rev. Jerry Fallwell, while Senator Dole is backed by David Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union.
Today, during appearances in Washington, D.C., Manchester, N.H., Boston, and Buffalo, N.Y., Kemp will argue that he is the one true believer, the sole candidate in the race so far who has been a consistent supporter of Reagan principles.
``I am the only Republican running who was for Ronald Reagan in 1980. I am the only Republican running who helped author the platform upon which Ronald Reagan ran in 1980 and 1984,'' Kemp told the Monitor in an interview.
``I'm the only Republican that will be in the race who has not voted to raise taxes or cut back on social security in the past six years,'' he said. ``And I'm the only candidate, at least so far, who has made it a national referendum issue to develop and deploy at the earliest possible moment the President's vision of a Strategic Defense Initiative.''
Originally, Kemp strategists hoped to make 1988 a clear-cut battle between the right and the center, between Kemp and Mr. Bush. But it has not turned out that way.
Kemp's support has been stagnant. Polls by Arthur J. Finkelstein and Associates show Kemp's strength among Republicans hovering unchanged at about 7 percent.
Meanwhile, Senator Dole moved into a solid second position as his support rose to about 12 percent. In Iowa, the first caucus state, Dole has climbed into first place ahead of Bush. Analysts say 1988 is shaping up as a Bush-Dole contest.
Now there is a further obstacle for Kemp. Former Senator Laxalt, a close friend of President Reagan and a sentimental favorite of hundreds of conservative leaders, says he will form a presidential exploratory committee. If he can raise enough money, he will apparently run.
Mr. Laxalt was Mr. Reagan's campaign chairman in 1976, 1980, and 1984. He was also general chairman of the Republican National Committee for five years. His conservative credentials are impeccable. His entry would greatly complicate Kemp's task.
There is little doubt about the immense stakes for conservatives in 1988. G. Donald Ferree, director of the Institute for Social Inquiry at the University of Connecticut, says 1988 will begin to answer a pivotal question in American politics:
Was the Reagan Revolution a phenomenon based on Mr. Reagan's personal appeal, or was it a true conservative revolution that derived its strength from the power of its ideas?
Robert Heckman, president of the Fund for a Conservative Majority and a Kemp supporter, says the next Republican nominee must do several things: He must coalesce conservatives behind him, he must prove his leadership, and he must find ways to expand the movement.
Mr. Heckman observes that there are three kinds of conservative issues - economic, social, and foreign policy.
It is foreign policy, rooted in anticommunism, however, that unites every conservative, Heckman says. For that reason, foreign policy will be pivotal in the coming Republican race. Conservatives will want to know which candidate will best support the Reagan doctrine to reverse communist gains, aid ``freedom fighters'' in Central America and Africa, and ``clean house'' to get rid of liberals at the State Department.
When the issues are drawn that way, Kemp will rise to the top, Heckman predicts.