Republicans Scramble as Clinton Lays Claim to Conservative Turf

REP. Richard Armey (R) of Texas, an avid Dallas football fan, compares President Clinton to the Cowboys's ace running back, Emmitt Smith. The president artfully ``fakes right and runs to the left'' to get past his opponents, the congressman says.

Three days after his State of the Union address, Mr. Clinton's political skills clearly have the GOP worried. Democrats have grabbed the ball on crime, welfare, and health reform, and they're scampering for the goal line.

Former Education Secretary William Bennett, one of Clinton's sharpest critics, admits grudgingly that the president is a ``finely tuned political animal.''

Sen. Malcolm Wallop (R) of Wyoming worries that the president could get away with ``the biggest call for government intervention ... in [my] 17 years in the Congress.''

GOP pollster Anthony Fabrizio frets that Clinton ``is poised to preempt the Republican Party on crime and welfare reform unless the GOP reclaims the agenda.''

Only a few weeks ago, some GOP strategists were predicting that they would make big gains in the 1994 congressional elections. Now they're not so sure.

Pollster Fabrizio says Clinton's conservative-sounding rhetoric on crime, welfare, and family values is beginning to ``blur the ideological lines'' between the GOP and the Democrats.

A CBS-TV poll taken after the State of the Union speech found 3 out of 4 Americans supporting the president's goals - a figure which indicates some Republican voters support the president's plans.

``That [poll] is a wake-up call'' for the GOP, warns Fabrizio. Clinton has serious vulnerabilities, including his penchant for larger government and higher taxes, but he is moving to the right rhetorically and blurring the issues to cover his political weaknesses, Fabrizio says.

What to do?

That was the topic of countless meetings and corridor conversations among Republicans in Washington this week. Although no clear consensus has yet emerged, many party leaders are suggesting that it might be necessary to take on the president directly, despite his growing popularity. The GOP needs to draw a bright line between its goals and those of the White House, they say.

There will be plenty of opportunities. The balanced-budget amendment, popular with the public, comes up soon on Capitol Hill. Clinton opposes it, but with nearly unanimous GOP support, it may squeak through the Senate, and later the House.

Rep. Bill McCollum (R) of Florida expressed the frustration felt by some Republicans. At a meeting sponsored by National Review magazine, Mr. McCollum noted that while talking tough on crime, the president last year cut the budget for federal prisons, and put fewer federal agents into the field.

But health care - the president's premier goal for 1994 - will be the biggest test for the Republican opposition on Capitol Hill.

Fabrizio says the health-care debate could be ready-made for the GOP. The Clinton health plan would add to the size of government, boost federal spending, raise taxes, reduce medical choices for most Americans, and result in an overall loss of individual freedom, he suggests.

Although Americans are supposedly fed up with Washington ``gridlock,'' Fabrizio says the GOP might actually win points with millions of voters by working to derail such an intrusive health plan.

At a strategy session this week for GOP congressmen, analyst William McInturff warned that the public gives Clinton credit for trying to solve problems in the health-care system. The GOP is virtually seen as a ``nonplayer,'' he said.

Even so, the GOP can take an important role in the coming debate, he suggested. It can raise questions about costs (the public is worried about that), about the huge government bureaucracy that would run the Clinton plan, and perhaps most important, how the plan would impact families.

While voters are impressed that Clinton is trying, they also worry that he is not telling them the whole story - the ``sin of omission,'' as Mr. McInturff puts it - especially as relates to cost.

What most concerns some Republicans, however, it not health care, welfare, crime, or any other hot-button issue. It is the economy - or rather, the prospect that the Clinton administration will get credit for the current expansion, whose groundwork was laid during the Bush presidency.

If the economy booms, voters may sweep Democrats back into power. And if the Clinton White House also delivers on universal health care, many voters may simply consider that an added bonus.

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