The ``Reagan revolution'' faces the challenge that eventually confronts every revolution: charting a course after its charismatic, catalytic leader leaves the political scene. The central issue for Republicans in 1988 is where the Reagan revolution goes from here - and experts say the answer will determine the GOP's future in the 1990s.
Sharp disagreement has begun to surface.
As the battle builds, political scientist William Schneider says, the Republican contenders appear to have divided themselves into three distinct and competing camps over the future of the party.
First, there are the ``loyalists,'' or as Mr. Schneider also phrases it humorously, the ``Old Bolsheviks.''
Mr. Schneider, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, says the loyalists include Vice-President George Bush and Paul Laxalt, a former senator from Nevada and President Reagan's ``First Friend.''
The political futures of both Mr. Bush and Mr. Laxalt rise and fall with the poll ratings of the President. Neither is advocating a sharp break with the past. Neither criticizes Reagan policies. If Republicans decide in 1988 that maintaining the status quo and continuing Reaganism are priority No. 1, both these men could benefit.
Schneider calls the second group of candidates the ``revisionists.'' These include Senate minority leader Robert Dole of Kansas and retired Gen. Alexander Haig.
Although both Senator Dole and General Haig are ``Reaganites,'' each would correct the ``flaws'' in the Reagan revolution.
Dole, for example, has spoken out sharply against the President's inability to control the deficit and on the misconduct inside the White House during the Iran-contra affair. Haig blasts Reagan's policies in Central America and wonders about the budget's ``flabbiness.''
The third major group consists of the ``radicals,'' or as Schneider says with a chuckle, the ``Red Guards.'' These candidates say the only way to save the Reagan revolution is to push it further ahead into new territory.
The radicals, in Schneider's view, include US Rep. Jack Kemp of New York, former Gov. Pierre (Pete) duPont of Delaware, and the Rev. Pat Robertson.
While Mr. Kemp, Mr. duPont, and Mr. Robertson do not agree on every issue, each is committed to pushing Reagan-like policies into new areas of policy dealing with fiscal, monetary, foreign, and social issues.
Republican voters in Michigan, Iowa, New Hampshire, and the other caucus and primary states will be deciding among the three broad courses of action espoused by these candidates.
Schneider and other leading political analysts discussed the GOP race at a seminar this week sponsored by The Atlantic Monthly.
David Keene, a senior consultant to the Dole campaign, observed that the Republican Party is much more homogeneous today than 20 years ago. In the 1960s, Eastern Rockefeller Republicans fought bitter battles with Western Goldwater Republicans. In the early 1950s, Eastern Eisenhower Republicans had fought Midwestern Taft Republicans.
Mr. Keene noted that during the 1960s and '70s, the party finally resolved its geographic and demographic differences as its power base shifted dramatically west and south. The East was in decline as a party stronghold.
Then, in the 1980s, the party resolved its remaining ideological differences. Today, despite a few mavericks, most Republicans are staunch Reaganites.
``The question for 1988 is, where do we go next?'' Keene says.
There are no easy answers for that, although the steady-as-she-goes wing of the party, led by Bush, continues to dominate at the moment. On Tuesday, Bush reinforced that perception when 65 of 177 Republican members of the House of Representatives endorsed his presidential bid.
Yet there are doubts that the status quo can win next year. In fact, Lee Atwater, campaign director for the Bush campaign, conceded at the seminar that one of the major obstacles for the vice-president was the charge that ``George Bush can't win in 1988.''
Mr. Atwater contends that is a false charge. He notes that the ``can't-win'' theory was a major argument against Ronald Reagan in the 1970s and against Richard Nixon in 1968.
But there is broad concern, reflected by such activists as Howard Phillips, that if the party doesn't move ahead into new territory, it will begin to lose support.
Mr. Phillips, founder of the Conservative Caucus, says Republicans should challenge Democrats by proposing balanced budgets (and letting the Democratic Congress reject them), actively deploying the Strategic Defense Initiative, and reasserting the Monroe Doctrine in Central America.
Republicans must seek a fresh mandate from the American people in every election, not coast along on past support, as Reagan did in 1984, Phillips argues.
Ed Rollins, a senior political adviser to Kemp, says that base-building is the key to the future of Republicans and Reaganism. That is why Kemp and others welcome the efforts of Robertson and his Religious Right followers. They are mostly former Democrats, and their inclusion broadens support for the GOP. It is also why Republicans must make greater efforts to win support from youthful voters, Hispanics, and other expanding voter blocs, Mr. Rollins says.
That need to expand is one reason Kemp, duPont, and others take such strong issue with the ``revisionists'' like Dole and Haig. Those two candidates advocate tougher budgeting, such as Dole's 1985 effort to freeze social security benefits, and accepting the political pain that goes with it.
But Kemp and other ``radicals'' say they believe that Dole's austere approach typifies the kind of GOP policies that lost elections for nearly 50 years.