Republicans Stalled, Seek New Vigor

GOP shows great strength but weekend gathering of Western leaders shows lack of clarity.

Going by the numbers, life looks pretty good for the Republicans.

They control both houses of Congress, majorities that will likely rise in the next election. And the GOP's lock on 32 out of 50 governor's offices is set to go up by one: Nevada's Democratic Gov. Bob Miller has been tapped to be ambassador to Mexico, opening the way for his Republican lieutenant to take the top spot here.

In Washington, President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore are laboring under a cloud of investigation over campaign-finance excesses. Suddenly, Mr. Gore looks vulnerable.

But, as Western state Republicans gathered here over the weekend, the sense of ennui was almost palpable. Some prominent speakers openly addressed the sense of drift, others acknowledged it in private. The conclusion was unmistakable: Three years after their stunning capture of Congress, Republicans are unsure where to go.

"Somehow Republicans are seeming a little less aggressive as champions of our ideas," Gov. Pete Wilson (R) of California told the party faithful. "Instead of their previous passion for the Contract [With America], too many seem gripped by inordinate caution," he added, comparing the sense of inertia to that of Britain's Conservative Party after Margaret Thatcher's retirement.

"We have to define and refine our shared doctrine," Gov. Mike Leavitt (R) of Utah said in an interview. "I don't know that our party has a clear shared doctrine now."

Certainly, party members acknowledge, the party pushed too hard, too fast to enact its agenda when it won control of Congress. Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich, a fount of ideas and fiery rhetoric, proved less adept at day-to-day leadership than at revolution; his low public approval ratings shook the confidence of his fellow GOP leaders.

And the Contract With America, the party's 10-point blueprint for governance that served as the rallying point for the 1994 congressional takeover, also has been tarred with an extremist image. "The Contract was so vilified, I can't say that resurrecting it" is a good idea, Western GOP strategist Lori Guddermuth told the crowd.

So, where do Republicans go from here? Frank Luntz, a Washington-based Republican pollster here for the conference, says the party is going through a period of sober, morning-after reflection. There is no strong party leader or clear presidential front-runner to look to, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing.

It is, says Mr. Luntz, a time to debate ideas and bring the public in on the discussion. His example: There is a growing consensus in America that the current tax code is mortally wounded, and the question is what should replace it.

That's why two Republican congressmen, Reps. Dick Armey of Texas and Billy Tauzin of Louisiana are launching a national tour Friday to debate competing proposals for a new tax system - a flat tax versus a national sales tax. Republicans say the tax code will be a winning issue for them in 1998 and 2000.

Still, Luntz expresses some frustration with the number of competing groups floating ideas on a range of issues. "There are a dozen [school] choice groups, not one," he says. "There are a half-dozen anticrime groups, not one. Our grass roots has become like the party, lots of small mini-movements within a larger effort, and that breeds uncertainty."

But this uncertainty can also be helpful, says conference attendee Grover Norquist, head of the antitax group Americans for Tax Reform. The press likes a good argument, and so he expects coverage of the debate over the tax code - a debate that should reinforce the idea that the current system is dead and will build support for the alternatives.

At root, Republican leaders told activists, the party's message remains what it has been: lower taxes, less government, and personal responsibility. The key is to communicate that message effectively in terms the public can latch onto.

Mr. Clinton may be the "communicator of the century," strategists conceded, but that doesn't mean Republicans can't take a page out of his book and also get their message across. If Clinton and Gore show up in California in their jeans wiring schools for high technology, Republicans can do the same thing.

When discussing education - the No. 1 issue for voters - choose words carefully, strategists said. When Republicans speak of cutting the Department of Education, people hear "cuts to education." When politicians speak of school vouchers, people may hear "public money going to private schools." These aren't winning messages, especially to women voters whom Republicans are eager to win back.

At heart, some Republicans - particularly those in Congress - displayed conflicting impulses about their role in government. As politicians, they enjoy winning office and being in power. But they also subscribe to the idea that their rule is temporary, their power "on loan" from the people. They don't want to become entrenched, they say, as the Democrats did during 40 straight years of control in the House of Representatives. But they also don't show any signs of wanting to give up the majority any time soon.

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