As Republicans gird for the struggle to retain the White House in 1988, they confront a double-barreled challenge: Not only must they do without Ronald Reagan at the head of their ticket but they also face a divisive contest over the choice for his successor.
To make matters more difficult, the 1988 presidential contenders must begin planning their strategies against the backdrop of the Iranian arms-and-hostages deal, which is turning into the nation's darkest political scandal since Watergate.
No one in either party knows where the trail of Iranian arms revelations ultimately will lead, or how much damage it will do to the GOP and its presidential aspirants. But already there is polling evidence that the scandal has at least temporarily hurt Vice President George Bush, the candidate most closely tied to President Reagan's policies, even as it has helped GOP Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who has openly criticized the Administration's activities and portrayed himself as determined to get at the truth of the matter.
Two Dark Horses
Other potential beneficiaries are two dark-horse contenders, television evangelist Pat Robertson and former Delaware Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont IV; they stand to gain, or so it is theorized, simply because of their distance from Washington and the roots of the Iran fiasco.
The immediate impact of the Iran- contras scandal on the Republican competition was plain in Iowa, where the GOP's delegate selection process traditionally starts. Arriving there for a speech last week, Bush was jolted by a new statewide poll that showed him slipping a few points behind Dole, over whom he previously had held a commanding lead.
"Clearly, we're not the front-runner in Iowa anymore," acknowledged Bush's press secretary, Marlin Fitzwater. "This is a call to arms."
Meanwhile, though, Fitzwater cited another recent survey, this one taken nationally, that showed Bush still in front of Dole, though by a narrower margin than in the past. And Bush's supporters predicted that before long their man would regain whatever ground he has lost.
One reason for their optimism is the continued personal popularity of Reagan, particularly among the Republican rank and file. This residual strength has reduced the political damage that Bush's closeness to the White House might otherwise have caused and has discouraged Republican rivals from being too critical of how Reagan has handled the affair.
"Irrespective of what happens in the Iran scandal, Republican primary voters have a visceral love affair with Ronald Reagan," said John Buckley, press secretary to New York Rep. Jack Kemp, one of Bush's chief rivals for the nomination. "And woe be it to any Republican presidential candidate who is not sufficiently loyal to the President."
The President's personal popularity has a strong political underpinning. Republicans scarcely need to be reminded that his landslide victories in 1980 and 1984 expanded the traditional GOP base by attracting blue-collar workers, white Southerners and young people. In the process, Reagan opened the door to the possibility of a broad new GOP majority coalition for the future.
No Reagan Clone
Of course, most Republicans see it as foolish to seek a Reagan clone as their 1988 standard-bearer. But it is no wonder that in casting about for their nominee they are interested in someone who, either by virtue of his contributions to the Reagan presidency's record or of his strengths that are similar to the President's, has a good chance of holding onto the electoral coalition that twice put Reagan in the White House.
Measured by that standard, these are the contenders expected to have the greatest impact on the campaign and their credentials for appealing to the Reagan constituency:
--Bush. No one is more closely identified with the Reagan Administration than Reagan's vice president. And though Bush has been a mostly silent partner, Fitzwater contends that his boss has in fact been "a major architect of the Reagan agenda."
Support Not Deep
Bush's support, while broad, is not considered deep: Many conservatives still mistrust him, his devotion to a perfectly vice presidential low profile has left him with a limp image and critics say his "preppie" style will not do well in middle America.
--Dole. In his leadership role in the Senate, Dole's supporters claim, their man did more to implement the Reagan program than anyone else except Reagan himself. Also, they contend, he demonstrated the political skill to keep Reaganism alive and well in the future.
Yet even some aides to the Kansas senator concede that, to become a national leader, he must move beyond his legislative resume. Says Dole adviser David Keene: "He understands issues in a tactical sense, but he has to demonstrate vision." Also, Dole's sometimes sharply partisan edge can rub independents as well as Democrats the wrong way. And his acerbic wit, relished in Washington, does not always sound presidential elsewhere.
--Kemp. An early advocate of the dramatic tax cuts underlying supply-side economics, Kemp was also a leader in the drive for tax reform. This record, his admirers say, makes him the most credible proponent for extending Reagan's politically appealing policies of economic growth.
Question of Dedication
On the other hand, devotion to Reagan-style tax cuts and supply-side economics has made Kemp a Johnny One-Note, critics charge. And he has been dogged by a perception that he is not truly dedicated to a run for the White House. Indeed, it was chiefly to combat this perception that Kemp plunged into the first round of Michigan's Rube Goldberg-like delegate selection system--where he ended up embarrassingly far behind Bush.
--Robertson. By plunging into politics as an outsider like Reagan himself, Robertson is well-positioned to echo Reagan's anti-Washington themes. Also, as a television evangelist, Robertson probably comes closer than any of his rivals to matching Reagan's celebrated talent as a communicator.
These oratorical skills have helped give Robertson what could be an invaluable base among the Christian Right, but the more he stokes the enthusiasm for his candidacy among such voters, the more he risks alienating others. And he still must get past a gantlet of questions about his relatively little-known personal record.
--Du Pont. As a former governor, he is the only one of the likely contenders who has experience as an executive. "He's the only one of the candidates who's actually led anything," claims his aide, Robert Perkins.
How well Du Pont can reconcile his patrician background with the new-populist themes of present-day Republicanism remains a question. And some of his ideas, while innovative, may also be politically foolhardy--including plans for modifying such icons as Social Security and farm supports.
Of these five, Kemp and Dole are considered by Republican professionals to be the chief rivals to front-runner Bush. Robertson is given the least chance to win the nomination because of the sharp divisions in public opinion over his religious background and views. Yet many believe he will have considerable influence on the party and the campaign--for better or for worse.
Some Republicans hope Robertson will broaden the party's base by bringing in conservative Christians who now usually do not vote or--if they do go to the polls--vote Democratic. But one of Robertson's potential rivals for the nomination recently told New Right leader and Robertson-admirer Howard Phillips that an all-out Robertson candidacy, with its anticipated emphasis on such sensitive concerns as abortion, school prayer and gay rights, "could destroy the Republican Party as we know it."
As they ponder ways to avoid the kind of divisiveness that would make the nomination prize hardly worth winning, each of the candidates must take into account tactical considerations that affect them all.
One such factor is the dramatic new acceleration of the delegate selection calendar brought on by the establishment of a Southern regional primary. In the second week of March, 1988, no fewer than 13 Southern and border states will pick their national convention delegates, representing nearly 30% of the national Republican total.
This delegate jackpot was arranged mainly because of the efforts of Democratic leaders in the South to give their region more clout in their party's choice of a presidential nominee. But the change is bound to have considerable impact on the Republican contest, though no one knows exactly what it will be.
Emphasis on Funds
Some Republican strategists believe the Dixie delegate extravaganza will make the ability to raise funds in 1987 more important than ever. With 13 states picking their delegates at the same time, it is reasoned, a candidate's best chance to reach the voters will be by spending millions on television commercials. That would seem to be good news for Bush, who is expected to be the best-financed of the Republican contenders.
But strategists for the other GOP candidates contend that even more important than money under the new delegate calendar is achieving success in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary, which precede the South's Super Tuesday. By this reasoning, whoever does well in those two early states will pick up enough momentum to ride to victory in the South.
Whatever the vagaries of the political calendar, each contender's strategy will be largely determined by his own inherent strengths and weaknesses, which reflect the background, experience and the natural inclinations that have marked each candidate's political career.
Bush, for example, has enjoyed the benefits until recently of being regarded as the undisputed front-runner. And whatever the periodic fluctuations in the polls, the prestige of his office and his far-flung contacts with party leaders and workers will give him important advantages in fund-raising and organizational efforts.
Arms Scandal a Dilemma
On the negative side, the Iranian arms scandal poses something of a dilemma for Bush, because it makes it awkward for him to claim that on the one hand he is deeply involved in Reagan Administration policies while on the other hand that he was completely unaware of the skulduggery involving Iran and the diversion of funds to the contra forces opposing the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.
Even more serious would be any clear evidence linking Bush to the financing of the contras with Iranian arms sale funds, in the face of his denials of such involvement. But in the absence of such a development, the vice president's supporters contend that their man can weather the Iranian storm and perhaps even get extra credit for remaining loyal to Reagan in the grimmest hours of his presidency.
Meanwhile, though, Bush has moved carefully to carve out his own position on Iran, calling last week for former National Security Council officials Vice Adm. John M. Poindexter and Lt. Col. Oliver L. North to waive the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination and "tell us the truth" about the Iran arms scandal. And aides say that evidence of new volatility among the Republican rank and file as a result of the Iranian affair probably will prompt Bush to intensify his early campaign efforts.
Regardless of developments in the Iran scandal, Bush still faces the challenge of developing his own view of the nation and the world, a difficult task for any vice president and particularly for Bush, who is not renowned for taking creative positions.
His aides contend that the 1986 congressional elections--by supposedly demonstrating that voters are chiefly concerned with personality rather than issues--lessened the pressure on Bush to come up with fresh ideas.
"He needs ideas," Fitzwater says of his boss, who will soon start meeting with "issue-oriented advisory groups" to focus on key issues for 1988. "But if factors of competence, style and character are as important in 1988 as they were in 1986," Fitzwater adds, "then Bush will be uniquely advantaged."
While Bush has had to content himself these last six years with the celebrity of the vice presidency, Dole has been making a name for himself as a man of substantive accomplishment on Capitol Hill. His performance as leader of the Senate Republicans has impressed insiders and gained him the television time to make himself known to the rest of the world. He is second only to Bush in name recognition among major Republican candidates.
May Go Too Far
Since the Iranian arms scandal broke, some believe that Dole has helped himself by calling for a special session of Congress to investigate the affair, even though that proposal was rejected by Reagan, and by other statements that seemed to reflect public concern--a judgment supported by the latest Iowa poll results. But Dole's supporters worry that he may go too far in pushing the point and seem to be mainly interested in promoting himself.
"There's a very fine line that he's walked successfully so far," says adviser Keene. "But he can step over it."
Like Dole, Jack Kemp is a legislator, but Kemp is far less of a Capitol Hill insider and far more of a popularizer of conservative ideology. His assets are his energy, enthusiasm and his ties to "movement" conservatives--people who belong to conservative organizations and attend their meetings.
While Bush is preparing to meet with advisory groups to develop ideas, Kemp fairly bubbles on about ideas on almost all occasions, public and private.
Recognition at 40%
Kemp's problems are pointed up by the fact that after nearly 10 years as a national political figure, his name recognition is still hovering at around only 40%. One conservative consultant who finds Kemp a refreshing contrast to such "soulless pragmatists" as Bush and Dole nevertheless concedes that Kemp "has to show that he can go all the way."
So far as the Iranian arms scandal is concerned, Kemp has not been forced on the defensive, as the vice president has. On the other hand, he lacks the leadership role that has allowed Dole to speak out on the controversy. "Kemp is not a player," says one strategist for a rival candidate who figures that Kemp can only remain loyal to Reagan and hope the storm abates soon.
Meanwhile, many believe that Kemp's effort to muster conservative support has been made much harder by the entrance of Pat Robertson into presidential politics. Robertson's greatest strength is his base among conservative Christians, many of whom otherwise might well be convinced to support Kemp.
Originator of Ideas
As for Robertson, he intends to compete against Kemp as an originator of ideas. "People are looking for new ideas from anybody outside the established core of the party," says Mark Nuttle, Robertson's chief political operator.
The problem for Robertson is not just his strongly held views on controversial social issues, but his status as a clergyman, which makes some voters worry that his candidacy presents a threat to the constitutional wall between church and state.
"There are a large percentage of people concerned about his background," Nuttle concedes. But he says this attitude will not be a problem for Robertson in the South, a stronghold for evangelical Christians who Nuttle expects to help Robertson run strongly in the regional primary.
If ideas do become a major factor in the campaign, then "Pete" Du Pont, as this scion of one of America's most powerful industrial dynasties likes to be called, may do better than most people now think. Mindful of his lack of name recognition, Du Pont, since he announced his candidacy last September, has been churning out headline-grabbing ideas--for mandatory drug testing of the nation's teen-agers, for replacing the current farm program, for a supplement to Social Security.
Name and Energy
To go along with all this intellectual firepower, Du Pont has his prestigious name, apparently boundless energy and a gregarious personality that could stand him in good stead in the critical early tests in the small states. "Pete Du Pont will go over very well in the kitchens of Iowa," predicts GOP consultant Eddie Mahe.
Du Pont's advisers treat with caution speculation that the Iranian arms scandal will boost their man's candidacy because he is regarded as an outsider. "That's a logical conclusion today, but it might not be so six months from now," says Robert Perkins.
Beyond calling for full disclosure, Du Pont has not had much to say on the scandal. "We're not spending our time advising this President," Perkins says. "We're trying to get ready for the problems facing the next President."
Five Long Shots
In addition to these five major contenders, there is another group of potential Republican candidates who are generally regarded as long shots, either because they are relatively unknown nationally or seem very uncertain about actually running. Here is a brief look at five long shots:
--William L. Armstrong. A favorite of conservative activists, the Colorado senator is "seriously" considering seeking the nomination, aides say. But most GOP strategists view him mainly as a vice presidential prospect.
--Howard H. Baker Jr. The former GOP Senate leader from Tennessee has had enough national experience to seem "presidential." But skeptics doubt whether he will run and some say he may already have waited too long to decide.
--Alexander M. Haig Jr. Reagan's former secretary of state believes that his experience in foreign affairs is a major political asset. But party pros believe that Haig will have a hard time breaking into elective politics at the presidential level.
--Paul Laxalt. Because of his close friendship with Reagan, the retiring Nevada senator could compete hard against Bush for Reagan loyalists. But his ties to gambling interests in his home state could fuel unwelcome controversy.
--Donald H. Rumsfeld. As former White House chief of staff, secretary of defense and ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, Rumsfeld has impressive credentials. But he has not held elective office since he left Congress in 1968 and has never run at any level higher than a congressional district.