Who Will Head the GOP?

The race to chair the Republican National Committe could indicate who has the best shot at becoming the party's nominee in 1996

LONG before the votes were cast Nov. 3, Republican circles were buzzing about Jack Kemp's presidential prospects. He was being billed as the man with "the vision thing" President Bush not only lacked but so contemptuously dismissed during four years in the White House.

The talk has centered on whether Mr. Kemp will have someone in the party chairman's race when the Republican National Committee (RNC) meets in January.

The meeting takes on special interest because for the first time since 1977 there won't be a Republican in the Oval Office to dictate the RNC's choice.

Though Kemp talk was contagious inside the beltway in the days leading up to the election, he isn't the only presidential hopeful. There's also Vice President Dan Quayle, Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, Gov. William Weld of Massachusetts, and perhaps Senate Minority Leader Robert Dole.

For most RNC members, reclaiming the Reagan legacy is apt to be the top priority. Under Ronald Reagan, Republicans were a party that offered hope and opportunity, with no new taxes but lots of new jobs. Mr. Bush let it slip away; they'd like it back.

Kemp's friends say he is the man for the job. They point to his early advocacy of enterprise zones in inner cities, home ownership and tenant management for low-income voters, and school choice for parents.

Kemp is the hero of new conservatives who want to combine supply-side economics with outreach to blue collar and minority voters.

Kemp backers expected Vin Weber, his friend and onetime colleague in the House, to go after the chairmanship. Mr. Weber may go into business instead. But whether it's Weber or someone else, the question for the Kemp people is whether a supply-sider who opposes abortion can unite a Republican Party made fractious by Pat Buchanan's convention speech and the inroads of Pat Robertson's Christian coalition.

Whoever runs for party chairman with the blessing of Kemp or any presidential hopeful must forge alliances and find votes among all party factions.

A Kemp man could turn to Governor Weld's social-liberal - some prefer libertarian - wing of the party. Weld has pushed targeted supply-side tax cuts through his legislature, making him a kindred spirit of the Kemp crowd on economics.

Helping Kemp's people take over the party might not be the best strategy for Weld, a pro-choice man who might be more comfortable with a moderate like Labor Secretary Lynn Martin.

THE symbolism involved in picking a pro-choice woman like Ms. Martin to lead the party in the aftermath of the Houston debacle might be irresistible for RNC members in search of an antidote to Mr. Buchanan's frightening rhetoric and the tough anti-abortion language in the party platform.

Martin has some negatives. She's a "Bushie" at a time when many in the party are angry with Bush for running an ineffective campaign. The Christian right wouldn't accept her pro-choice views.

But Martin might be just right for Mr. Dole, a mainstay in the party's moderate faction who has signaled he plans to play a key role in plotting GOP strategy.

Martin's pro-choice views may not be a handicap. Historically, mainstream Republicans have shied away from public infighting; a lot of insiders, however, will tell you that party leaders can't avoid a showdown on abortion. A source close to Kemp, speaking on background, said his guess is that a majority of the national committee don't agree with the 1992 platform.

But he also warns that a strong identification either way on that issue won't help in today's Republican Party.

If Kemp's camp turns to the Christian right, which controls some RNC votes in the South and West, it would preclude him from making concessions on abortion or family issues and might drive RNC members away.

They could go to Michigan state chairman Spencer Abraham, a former Quayle staffer. Like Kemp, Mr. Quayle has friends on the RNC. He's worked with every party chairman and with the members of Team 100, the party's big fund-raisers. Quayle is popular in RNC circles and could influence the outcome of the chairmanship race.

Charlie Black, the senior strategist for the Bush campaign, is also in the running. A Kemp man in 1988, Mr. Black is now close to Senator Gramm, who has positioned himself near the mainstream of economic conservatives. Like Kemp and Quayle, Gramm will be looking out for his interests when the RNC meets.

To avoid the kind of showdown Republicans abhor, party leaders could anoint a consensus candidate. There are plenty around. One is former Delaware Gov. Pete DuPont, a supply-sider with moderate views on social issues who made a lot of friends when he ran for president in 1988. If he'd agree to sit out 1996, he might be the ideal choice.

There's also Howard (Bo) Callaway, Jerry Ford's campaign manager in 1976. He has been on the sidelines long enough to avoid labeling. William Bennett, the drug czar under President Reagan and a leading thinker among conservatives, is another; so is Haley Barbour, White House political director under Reagan.

One more name keeps coming up: Ed Rollins. You'll remember that he deserted Bush for Ross Perot, but quit in time to save his name and reputation.

He still has a wide network of friends in the party and, come January, President Bush will no longer be in a position to blackball him. The consensus is that he'll come back to the GOP, although it might be a little early to give him the top job. But who knows? As political consultant Colin Chapman put it, "Everybody who said to blackball him is about to be unemployed."

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