Turmoil on the right after Newt quits

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The Independent Online
THE DEMOCRATS in Washington will have woken yesterday morning and pinched themselves. Was it all just a dream? Or did their Republican adversaries really toss their leader overboard after an election rout?

It was reality, not fantasy. For four years the Republicans followed Newt Gingrich, the silver-haired revolutionary, on his self-imposed crusade to shake up American government. That crusade ended suddenly on Friday night with his resignation.

Suddenly, everything is up for grabs in American politics, and the Republican party risks a civil war. And that is bad news for those who seek the party's nomination for the Presidential race in 2000.

It may yet remove the boyish grin from George W Bush, whose smile made him the acceptable face of the Republican party in a week when there were precious few things to smile about. The Bush brothers, George W and Jeb, emerged as the new role models for the party in the elections, by sweeping all before them in Texas and Florida respectively while the Republicans crashed and burned elsewhere. They are both conservatives, but cuddly conservatives, more interested in practical politics than ideology. George W is easily the front runner in the nomination stakes, and exit polls show him beating Al Gore, Vice President and the likely Democratic choice, hands down. The party - keen to put on a friendly face again - was moving yesterday to elevate him further. A group of Republican activists was meeting in Iowa to decide on their candidate for 2000. Iowa leads off the primary season, and an endorsement here would give him considerable momentum.

So what could derail him? The Republican party itself, that's what. As Mr Gingrich's resignation showed, it is developing a taste for self-mutilation. His departure may have come as a total shock, but pressure had been building for months, and dissatisfaction stemmed partly from events that go back to 1995, the year he arrived as Speaker. Mr Gingrich was seen as having bungled a budget showdown with the White House, and repeated the mistake this year. The moderates in the party saw him as too ideological, too obsessed with himself, and more of a bomb-thrower than a party boss.

But Mr Gingrich made clear that his real problems lie with the party's conservatives. In the conference call with Republicans where he announced his intention to resign, Mr Gingrich lashed out at them in no uncertain terms. "A handful of members have blackmailed the conference," he said, according to one Republican quoted in the New York Times. The Speaker had also called them "hateful" and "cannibals".

"Look, I'm the speaker, so I'll take responsibility," Mr Gingrich had said after the election defeat. But he warned those who were circling around his leadership to back off. "I think the people who normally are quoted in this are people who would in fact take the party to a narrower base with fewer members."

It was from the Christian fundamentalist wing of the party that the real venom came after the elections. "When the team is losing you get a new coach," James Dobson, the eminence grise of the new Christian conservative movement, said after the election. "They lost their nerve at the end of the session," he said of the party leadership. "They caved in on everything of importance to the pro-family and pro-life community." Mr Dobson has been saying for months that the Republicans were failing to make a mark, because they did not connect with the wishes of Christian fundamentalists, and earlier this year threatened to pull his group away from the Republicans.

Some conservative Christians, it emerges, had made that decision for themselves, with a significant proportion defecting to vote for conservative Democrats. If the Republicans in general had a bad time at the polls on Tuesday, the religious right had a wretched election, perhaps the worst since it emerged as a force in 1980. The Christian Coalition spent $1.3m, and the Campaign for Working Families, which is allied to Mr Dobson, spent nearly $3m, yet many of their candidates failed to get in.

The diagnosis of what went wrong varies sharply across the party. Randy Tate, the Christian Coalition Executive Director, said the Republicans failed to offer a "clear conservative agenda". But the moderates believe it is precisely the domination of the religious right that is hampering them. "When Republicans try to tell the American people what they should think about someone else's morality, we get thumped," said Mark Miller, head of the Republican Leadership Council.

The activists meeting in Iowa to support Mr Bush will be drawn largely from the conservative right, and they will want him to demonstrate his conservative credentials. That risks pushing him further to the right than the electorate may like.

But an endorsement now poses other dangers. There are plenty of candidates who will try to outflank him on the right, notably Steve Forbes, the millionaire publisher who has spent the years since his defeat for the candidacy in 1996 burnishing his conservative credentials. Mr Bush had said he wanted to make a decision about standing for the Presidency only next year. Partly that is because he has, after all, only just been re-elected Governor of Texas. But he and his advisers also know that there is a serious risk that by being out in front so early, Mr Bush simply becomes an easier target for the right at a time when the party's schisms are opening up.

Conservatives are a small but important part of the electorate. Fifty per cent of this year's voters said they considered themselves moderates, up about five per cent, and they wanted to vote on issues like education and social security. Conservatives - who make up about a third of the electorate, down five per cent - put moral values at the top of their list of concerns.

But they loom much larger in the Republican Party, where they are a crucial element amongst the party's activists, and - individually and through political action committees - they can deliver vast amounts of money. They did for Mr Gingrich. And if Mr Bush does not demonstrate some fancy footwork, they could do for him too.