Old Players Vie for New Roles in GOP

Steve Forbes and Ralph Reed are positioning themselves to fill party's leadership vacuum.

On the surface, Steve Forbes and Ralph Reed don't seem like political soul mates.

Yes, the wealthy publisher of Forbes magazine and the departing director of the Christian Coalition are both Republicans. Mr. Forbes ran for the GOP nomination for president last year and Mr. Reed, although officially nonpartisan, has grown to be key powerbroker within the Republican Party.

Forbes is associated with economic issues, Reed with social issues. But as the GOP struggles with a vacuum in its leadership, both men are working to fill that void now - and to position themselves for future impact in Republican electoral politics.

"The Republican Party is splintering even further," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. "Though there's plenty of time to bring it together" for the 2000 election.

The question is what the new GOP will look like. Both Forbes and Reed are working to broaden their messages and appeal to wider audiences.

As honorary chairman of a new advocacy organization, Americans for Hope, Growth, and Opportunity, Forbes is speechifying across the country, running radio ads, appearing before Congress, and seeking media attention.

The Forbes organization's stated goal is to "champion a pro-family, pro-growth, pro-freedom vision to lead America into the 21st century." He insists he's not running for president, at least for now, but in every way, he's acting like a man intent on doing just that. In fact, pundits say, he's doing what he has to do to keep his prospects alive for 2000: Since he doesn't hold political office (and never has), he has to find other ways to keep his name and ideas in the spotlight.

"He can easily be eclipsed by those with a national platform," says political analyst Stu Rothenberg. But, he adds, because there is no heir apparent to the Republican nomination, the field is wide open. And Forbes has shown he is able to set the national debate. Last year, he got America talking about his proposed across-the-board 17 percent income tax rate.

THIS time around, he is trying assiduously to get over his image as Mr. Flat Tax. On April 15, tax day, Forbes was testifying before the Senate against the Chemical Weapons Convention. And the 10-point strategy for his new organization begins not with the the flat tax (that comes second) but "putting families first." It contains language Ralph Reed would applaud, decrying "a tragic disregard for the sanctity of human life - from conception to old age."

In the 1996 campaign, religious conservatives held Forbes at arm's length, and some actively sought to squelch his campaign, because he did not give abortion and other social issues high-enough priority. This time, Forbes is acting on one of the new verities of the Republican Party: To win the GOP nomination for president, a candidate must have the acceptance of the conservative wing of the party.

"The word 'acceptance' is key," says Bill Schneider, a political analyst at the American Enterprise Institute. "He doesn't have to be the candidate of the conservatives, but they have to accept him. Whether Forbes can succeed is unclear."

In recent months, Forbes has met with religious conservative leaders in an effort to enhance his relations with them.

One of his interlocutors has been Ralph Reed, the man most responsible for harnessing America's religious conservatives - little organized and not respected by the mainstream culture eight years ago - and making them into a premier force in politics today. His recent decision to leave the Christian Coalition in September to form a political consulting firm leaves a void at the top of the coalition that will be tough to fill.

"Reed has been able to walk a very fine line that's dangerous and difficult, between being an advocate for a constituency group and being a player in the Republican leadership debate," says Mr. Rothenberg.

Sometimes he went over the line with each end of the equation, angering his grass roots at times with his political pragmatism and, at different turns, infuriating moderate Republicans by, as they saw it, highlighting divisive issues and damaging the party's image.

In the current Congress, Reed and the Christian Coalition have won early action on their agenda. While the party debates how to handle budget and tax issues, social conservatives scored victories with votes on partial-birth abortion, a resolution on the Ten Commandments, and assisted suicide.

In his life after the Christian Coalition, there is no doubt Reed will remain a force in Republican politics, and perhaps become an even greater one, analysts say. There is also little doubt that he can earn many times his current salary, taking on clients who want to tap into his connections to the powerful religious right.

The question, for both Forbes and Reed, is whether they can each transcend their labels and succeed in their efforts to remake the GOP.

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