Republicans Use Economy As Focus to Rebuild Party

MANY Republicans have been walking with a spring in their step and a smile on their faces lately. The cause of their glee? All the setbacks - ranging from the defeated stimulus package to record-low approval ratings - that President Clinton faced during his early days in office.

But just after the last presidential election, the atmosphere within GOP ranks was quite different. Bitter finger-pointing was the order of the day as conservatives and moderates blamed each other for the loss of the White House. A lot of personal invective was tossed around, with some of the sharpest words coming from erstwhile presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan, who denounced "big government" conservatives like Bush Cabinet member Jack Kemp.

As memories of the election have faded so has some of the feuding. (Interview with GOP chairman, Page 3.) Texas Rep. Dick Armey, the No. 3 House Republican, compares the GOP today to a football team that is just recovering from a defeat.

"My brother's a football coach and his teams go through a process of winning and losing. After a disappointing loss there tends to be a lot of internal reexamination, looking at the running game, the defense, the passing. We work through that, and then very quickly we get to focus on the next contest," Representative Armey avers. "As we've focused on the Democrats, other things have dropped into place and we've developed a common cause." Economic focal point

The common cause the GOP has found recently is opposition to President Clinton's economic plan. In the Senate, for example, all 43 GOP members stuck together in a filibuster that defeated the stimulus package.

"Right now the party is unified in opposition to Clinton's economic plan and its philosophical assumption of more government, not less," says William Bennett, a former Reagan-Bush Cabinet member. "The Clinton economic program will be to us domestically what communism was in foreign affairs: a unifying force."

But lurking behind today's new-found unity is the specter of internecine division. If the GOP is to avoid the strife that occurred in 1992, many Republicans say, the party must form a coherent agenda. And to do that, Republicans will have to come to terms with three major fault lines.

* On social issues: Libertarians and socially liberal Republicans want the party not to take a stand on issues such as abortion and school prayer. Conservatives reply that, as Mr. Bennett puts it, social issues are "key" to winning back the allegiance of Reagan Democrats - mainly working-class ethnics - whose votes were crucial to Republican successes in the 1980s.

* On economic issues: Deficit hawks, such as Sen. Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, say their top priority is reducing the deficit. Supply-siders, like Jack Kemp, favor cutting taxes to stimulate the economy. While their disagreement is strong, GOP Chairman Haley Barbour argues their views are not incompatible - they are simply stressing different sides of the same coin.

* On foreign policy: Few in the GOP agree with the isolationist views of Patrick Buchanan. But there is no internationalist consensus, either. For example, Republicans are divided over whether US forces should be used in the former Yugoslavia.

Of the three disagreements, the one over social issues is by far the most serious. Republican leaders feel that they cannot alienate either pro-choice or anti-abortion forces. As a result they are trying to forge an uneasy compromise: putting divisive social issues in the background, while stressing the economic principles that allegedly unite the GOP. Says Sen. Phil Gramm (R) of Texas: "We'll never have a consensus on abortion. But we'll have Republicans with different views on the issue who also share a common vision for peace and prosperity."

Will that compromise satisfy all factions within the GOP's Big Tent? It's too early to say. But some Republicans are convinced that their internal divisions will be bridged.

"There could be splits but there could be a surprising amount of agreement," says William Kristol, chief of staff to Vice President Dan Quayle. "If you look historically, the Republicans aren't so bad off now. Look at how split the Democrats were in 1989." Waiting in the wings

Mr. Kristol and other GOP analysts believe their party is poised for a comeback - especially if Clintonomics flounders. They have been encouraged by Republicans' strong showing Saturday in a US Senate by-election in Texas, and by recent opinion polls that show roughly as many Americans call themselves Republicans as Democrats.

That's the good news. The bad news is that to take advantage of those figures, Republicans will have to preserve party comity on a host of divisive issues - abortion foremost among them. "It'll be interesting to see if the Republicans can get themselves past the abortion issue," says Paul Tsongas, a Democratic presidential candidate in 1992. "If they can do it they will be formidable. If not, they'll be an asterisk."

* The first of a five-part series.

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