No sooner had Texas Sen. Phil Gramm finished telling his audience of conservative activists that the political future held a choice between “unlimited opportunity and unlimited government” than Paul Hart leaped to his feet, applauding.
“Phil Gramm has just established himself as the Republican presidential front-runner for 1996,” Hart, who heads the West Virginia Conservative Union, later told a reporter.
Hart’s appraisal may have been overstated, but his enthusiasm reflected a current preoccupation on the right: While most Americans are just getting used to the idea that Ronald Reagan has left the political stage, dyed-in-the wool conservatives such as Hart already are hunting intensively for a successor to lead their movement.
That search got under way in earnest here last week, when Gramm, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp and Vice President Dan Quayle, among others, auditioned for the old Reagan role during the 16th annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
The one conclusion that emerged from interviews with some of the 1,200 conference participants from all over the country was that as yet, there is no clear consensus about who the next champion of the conservatives will be.
“It’s up for grabs,” said 70-year-old Nellie Tipperer, who came with her husband, Miles, from Mercer Island, Wash., near Seattle. The Tipperers supported religious broadcaster Pat Robertson for the 1988 GOP presidential nomination, but said they have open minds about who will get their backing in the future.
One factor in the competition for the next Mr.--or maybe Ms.--Right is that the presence of George Bush in the White House probably rules out any contest for the GOP presidential nomination until after the 1992 elections.
Unlike Reagan, Bush is scarcely revered among conservatives. Impressionist Jim Morris got a big laugh from a conference audience by impersonating Bush and referring to the language skills of Bush’s 1988 Democratic opponent, Michael S. Dukakis.
“We don’t need a President who speaks Spanish,” Morris, mimicking Bush, said. “We need a President who speaks gibberish.”
Criticisms of Bush
In a more serious vein, some conservatives complain that Bush is insufficiently committed to battling communism abroad or to bolstering the U. S. military machine.
The California chapter of Young Americans for Freedom handed out “a report card” on Bush’s record. The group gave him an F on aid to the Contras in Nicaragua and a D-minus on the Strategic Defense Initiative.
By and large, however, most conservatives interviewed here seemed reasonably content with Bush. “So far, Bush has been a little more conservative than I expected,” Terry Moffitt, dean of a High Point, N. C., religious school, said.
Even if the next conservative drive for the White House is years away, conservative organizers say the movement still needs a leader to unify the various factions on the right, to win over the politically uncommitted and to lay the groundwork for a future presidential campaign.
Conservative leaders and rank-and-filers named four men as likely to get attention and support as conservatives seek to redefine their goals after 10 years of basking in the reflected glory of Ronald Reagan:
--Phil Gramm. Former Democrat Gramm, at 46, already has his name on two legislative measures that helped define the Reagan era--the 1981 Gramm-Latta budget resolution and the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction law. Respected even by foes for his intellectual prowess, he also gets high marks for being politically street smart.
And he is not lacking in humor. “My mama says I became an economist because I didn’t have enough personality to be an accountant,” he tells his audiences.
One potential drawback: Some question of whether Gramm has the inspirational qualities required to march in Reagan’s shoes.
--Jack Kemp. The former New York congressman and early proponent of an income tax cut seems to regard his Cabinet post as a blessed opportunity to demonstrate that supply-side economics can solve the urban problems liberalism could not lick. And, at 53, the ex-quarterback still exudes a boyish enthusiasm. “I always wonder why we left the high moral ground of fighting poverty to the left,” he told a conservative conference session.
Pitfalls for Kemp
Other conservatives said the ills of the cities may prove intractable despite Kemp’s nostrums, and that the frustration may leave him sounding like an old-fashioned liberal--asking for government money to be thrown at the problems.
--Dan Quayle. An earlier Republican vice president who felt himself under-appreciated by the press, Spiro Agnew, used that perception to help him win friends on the right, and Quayle can count on a similar supportive reaction from conservatives who resent the power of the media. Moreover, the 42-year-old Quayle also has to commend him a hawkish Senate record on foreign policy. Even in the era of glasnost , he claims to feel a “deep skepticism” about the Soviet Union’s intentions.
As vice president, however, Quayle may find it difficult to answer conservative grievances against the Bush Administration. Moreover, his privately stated reluctance to say much about “emotional, divisive issues” such as abortion laws and prayer in schools may disappoint some social-issues conservatives.
--Pat Robertson. The 58-year-old preacher has taken a temporary leave from politics while he repairs the damage his religious broadcasting enterprises sustained while he was away on the presidential campaign trail. He has vowed to be back soon, and already is organizing a political action committee and a lobby to enhance his influence.
Robertson calculates that the Supreme Court’s forthcoming decision on abortion laws will buck the issue back to the legislatures of the 50 states, arenas he says will be “ideal battlegrounds” for his troops.
Robertson’s biggest political asset continues to be fervent support among conservative Christians. The critical question hanging over his political future is whether he can maintain that base while broadening his appeal in a way that would make him a serious contender for the role of Mr. Conservative.
Any such listing of right-wing luminaries is, of course, subject to change. New faces could emerge in coming months, among them Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) if he can demonstrate imagination to match his technical skill as a legislative operator, and drug enforcement czar William J. Bennett’s if he can show some progress against the scourge of the cities.
Meanwhile, conservatives can still depend for inspiration on some old standbys who, for various reasons, seem unlikely candidates for national preeminence. Former U. N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick continues to wow audiences with her acerbic wit, but her temperament and desire for privacy apparently keep her from seeking public office.
Another is Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N. C,), who admirers say is barred from the No. 1 spot by his refusal to compromise on matters of conservative principle and by his decision to immerse himself in his Senate duties.
Staff writer Paul Houston contributed to this story.