Republicans find hope amidst wider disarray

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WITH THE election of a new party chairman, the Republicans embarked at the weekend on the arduous task of bridging their destructive divide over abortion rights, and regaining the role of generator of ideas which helped sweep Ronald Reagan to the presidency, but which his successor George Bush fatally squandered.

Even among Washington cognoscenti, the name of Haley Barbour is not one which trips off the tongue. But as chairman of the Republican National Committee (RNC) this 45-year-old Mississippi-born lawyer and lobbyist, once political director in the Reagan White House, will be architect, co-ordinator and chief public spokesman of the party's efforts to make sure Bill Clinton goes into history as a one-term president.

The mood in St Louis offered a spectacle of hope amid disarray. For the first time in years, an RNC election was contested and unpredictable: Mr Barbour, representing the party's centre-right, only won on the third ballot after the most obviously conservative of his four rivals dropped out.

But lifting everyone's spirits were the misfortunes of the first Democratic occupant of the White House for 12 years. President Clinton's travails may prove a dangerously seductive illusion. Right now they offer Republicans retrospective comfort for November's disaster. The uproar caused by Mr Clinton's plans to lift the ban on gays in the military, some Republicans argued here, hands the party a 'values' issue.

First though, it still has to put behind it the 'values' controversy which as much as anything contributed to its defeat in November - the gaping split over abortion rights which led to the conservatives' triumph in August, when they forced through a platform at the Houston convention all but outlawing abortion entirely.

Here, the outward mood was very different. Although an opponent of abortion, Mr Barbour seemed to espouse a more conciliatory stance. 'If we make abortion a test of being a Republican, we need our heads examined,' he told delegates, earning a warm endorsement from Ann Stone, leader of the embattled 'Republicans for Choice' pro-abortion rights pressure group.

But beneath the surface, conflict still boils. Hardliners in the 165-strong RNC listened in silence as the outgoing chairman, Rich Bond, warned that 'our job is to win elections, not cling to intolerances that zealots call principles'.

And at grass roots there is anything but unity, as moderates and orthodox conservatives battle with the 'religious right' for control of precinct, city and state Republican organisations. 'Rich Bond has advocated suicide for this party,' one anti-abortion activist aligned with Pat Robertson's Christian Coalition said on Saturday.

Mr Barbour now has to move fast. Although the party has three and a half years in which to rebuild before the next presidential campaign, vital congressional elections are much closer. In May, the party hopes to recapture the Senate seat held by the Treasury Secretary, Lloyd Bentsen. Next year 34 Senate seats are up for election, 22 of them Democrat- held and several distinctly vulnerable. Just seven Republican gains, by no means an impossibility, could give control of the Senate back to the party for the first time since the early 1980s.

The impact of Mr Barbour's arrival on the battle for the 1996 Republican nomination is unclear. Unquestionably it was a setback for former vice-president Dan Quayle, whose one-time senior aide, Spencer Abraham, was defeated in Friday's vote. But Mr Barbour vows he will not take sides. The current favourite remains the former housing secretary Jack Kemp. Apart from Mr Quayle, the former defense secretary Dick Cheney makes little secret of his plans to run in 1996.