Woman of her word to reply to Clinton

Republicans have picked the tax-cutting governor of New Jersey for the limelight, writes John Carlin in Washington

Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, observed on Saturday that women lacked the innate aggression required to hunt giraffes. Study of the behaviour of the Kalahari bushmen, he told an audience in the Atlanta subur b of Alpharetta, had also taught him the male of the species was biologically better suited to combat than the female.

Which at first glance made it surprising that he should have chosen Christine Todd Whitman to deliver the Republican Party's official response to President Bill Clinton's State of the Union address last night. Mrs Whitman, besides, is the governor of thestate of New Jersey and never before in the history of the annual ceremony has someone outside Congress been granted the opportunity - live on national television - to perform the ritual rebuttal of the presidential speech.

But there is method in Mr Gingrich's madness.

A visitor from the Kalahari would find Mrs Whitman something of an anthropological curiosity. Golfer, mountain bike rider, basketball player and, indeed, fox-hunter, Mrs Whitman, a rangy 48-year-old, has emerged as the strong early favourite to run as the Republican candidate for vice-president in the 1996 election. A convincing attack on President Clinton's address, Washington pundits were saying yesterday, would catapult her into the national spotlight, adding the vital ingredient of name recognition to her other, not insignificant Republican virtues.

What makes her immediately attractive to the reigning Republican grandees is her track record as a cutter of taxes and an advocate of small government. She campaigned for governor in 1993, and defeated the incumbent Democratic governor, on the promise ofreducing state taxes by 30 per cent in three years. The indications are that she will have achieved her goal a year ahead of schedule. Last year she cut state taxes by 15 per cent. On Monday she proposed in her annual budget message a further 15 per cent cut this year - a proposal the Republican-controlled New Jersey legislature is expected to approve.

Mrs Whitman plans to pay for the cuts by reducing the size of the state civil service, where 3,350 job losses are expected.

The Republican chairman, Haley Barbour, gave an indication of the theme of Mrs Whitman's speech last night when he said the New Jersey governor had not only implemented the policies her party seeks to impose on the nation as a whole, she had also - in contrast to the President - stood by her word.

She will broadcast her response to Mr Clinton's speech not from Congress, the traditional setting for the State of the Union address, but from her official home, Drumthwacket, in Trenton, New Jersey. The Republicans, as she explained this week, "want to stress the devolution of power from Washington and they thought this would be the most dramatic way to do it, to get a governor".

The fact that she is a female governor is not irrelevant, Mr Clinton having secured significantly more votes among women than men in the 1992 election. Pro-choice on abortion, against cutting off welfare to unwed teenage mothers, she also provides the Republicans with a useful foil to Mr Gingrich's `Alf Garnett' approach to life and politics, a point Mr Gingrich himself has not failed to miss. Explaining the choice of Mrs Whitman as Mr Clinton's State of the Union respondent, Mr Gingrich said: "We wanted to send a signal about how broad-based we are."

Bob Dole, the Republican senator tipped to run against Mr Clinton in 1996, has given Mrs Whitman his vice-presidential blessing. Her moderation in the present Republican climate, is not a problem. "We're saying `come on in, the party's big'," said Mr Dole.

Mrs Whitman has a patrician manner and was brought up in a 200-year-old mansion. Above all, in the view of a former adviser to Ronald Reagan who now works with Mrs Whitman, she has the just the right image for Middle America. "She's tall, which helps. She's handsome. She is certainly not sexy, which is a good thing. And she's got a husband and a couple of kids. It would be hard not to talk about her as a vice-president."

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