Big GOP Names Aim for the Grass Roots

Empower America calls for less regulation, less taxation, less government, but it is hurt by perception it is a Kemp-for-president body

SETTING up a government-in-exile isn't easy. Just ask the folks at Empower America.

Launched just as the Clinton administration was taking office, Empower America is a conglomeration of leading Republicans, including Jack Kemp, William Bennett, and Jeane Kirkpatrick. Their goal is to rally ordinary Americans behind a conservative Republican alternative to the administration's policies. But even the basic logistics of the task are daunting.

Months after Empower America's start-up, for instance, the large metal display in the group's lobby still read: "1st Chicago - the First National Bank of Chicago." Underneath, there was a small, handwritten sign spelling out the name of the office's new tenant. The bank sign has come down recently, but, says spokesman Dan Cohen, "We're still not in full gear yet."

"We have just about all of our staff in here, but they're not in offices yet. Painting is going on," Mr. Cohen reports. "I'm in the conference room now with four to five colleagues and moving boxes. We're making do, coexisting. It's a campaign atmosphere."

No wonder Empower America has had trouble getting up to speed: It's sailing into uncharted waters. The closest parallel is the Democratic Leadership Council, set up in the 1980s by centrist Democratic officeholders, including a young Arkansas governor named Bill Clinton, to nudge their party rightward. Like the DLC, Empower America aims to combine practical politicking - holding meetings, raising money, staging press conferences - with theorizing about the best ways to solve America's problems.

One big difference: The DLC was an unabashedly one-party organization, whereas Empower America's tax-exempt status allows it to get involved in issues-organizing but not in endorsing political candidates. "We're political, but not a Republican Party organ. Otherwise, we would be called the Republican Leadership Council," says former Rep. Vin Weber (R) of Minnesota, who is the group's president.

Sitting in a bare conference room, the balding and bespectacled Mr. Weber argues that the group has an important role to play. "Neither party does a good job of grass-roots organizing," Weber says. "But the Perot campaign showed that people want to get involved in nonpartisan, grass-roots organizations that concentrate on a broad range of issues."

Thus, Empower America pitches itself as an alternative - right down to the similar name - to United We Stand America Inc., Ross Perot's grass-roots organ. It even has Orson Swindle, Mr. Perot's former spokesman, as a member. But one thing it lacks is the Texan's big bucks.

Empower America was set up with roughly $800,000 in seed money, much of it donated by such major contributors as investment banker Theodore Forstmann and publisher Steve Forbes. It hopes to raise a total of $4 million this year. The group has now launched a direct-mail appeal that will generate small individual donations and a long mailing list - a prerequisite for success in modern political organizing.

But with the staff still moving into the new office, Empower America is just starting its work. Its principal activities so far have been a handful of poorly attended press conferences and the release of Mr. Bennett's "Index of Leading Cultural Indicators" - a survey he compiled showing that out-of-wedlock births, crime, and other social problems have shot up in the last 30 years.

This summer, Empower America plans to launch a series of one-day workshops around the country in which its leaders can get in touch with rank-and-file followers from the heartland. (The first one is tentatively scheduled for June 24 in Milwaukee.)

"Our effort," Weber says, "is aimed at articulating the central positions that unite conservatives in governing and opposition."

But although Empower America's leaders agree on its basic message - less regulation, less taxation, and less government - disagreements simmer just beneath the surface. The principal differences are between Mr. Kemp and Bennett over how strongly the group - and the Republican Party - should stress social issues.

Kemp, the supply-side evangelist, puts his emphasis on economic incentives, such as "enterprise zones," to help even the most-blighted inner cities. Bennett agrees that economics counts but only up to a point. He emphasizes that America's ills can only be cured with a big dose of traditional cultural values.

"Bennett and I are pals, but we have something of a disagreement," Kemp says tactfully.

Of course, the tensions between Bennett and Kemp are not entirely ideological. There is also a personal dimension - namely that both men see themselves as a presidential standard-bearer for the Republican Party. Kemp may be the clear front-runner now, but if he stumbles, Bennett could always come along to pick up support from conservatives.

Navigating the sometimes rocky shoals between Kemp and Bennett is Weber. "We have a strong appeal because of the three powerful names, but it also creates frictions," he concedes.

Weber's solution, at least for the time being, is to focus Empower America on issues that unite its three directors, such as welfare reform, school vouchers, and opposition to higher taxes. "This organization has made a decision not to take the lead on divisive issues, such as abortion, gun control, and school prayer," he says.

It's unclear, however, how long Empower America can keep straddling the fence on issues that Bennett considers to be of such vital importance. The other complication that may threaten the group's future is the widespread perception that Empower America is little more than a thinly disguised Kemp-for-president committee.

"As long as Jack remains tremendously popular, it'll be impossible for us to get rid of that image," Weber acknowledges. "But it's not our attempt to put together a front group for Jack Kemp. Our hope is that more than one Republican presidential candidate will go down the path we've charted."

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