The three leading Republican presidential candidates competed Sunday to cast themselves as disciples of Ronald Reagan but were overshadowed at times as other GOP hopefuls waged a pointed debate over abortion.
First on the national Sunday TV news shows, then on a New Hampshire TV forum and finally at a state Republican dinner that drew 1,400 people, the GOP prospects sought to position themselves as best-suited to take on President Clinton and reduce the size and power of the federal government.
New Hampshire’s leadoff primary is a year from Monday, but the candidates were acting as if it were any day now, scooting from table to table to greet those who had paid $100 to hear from nine GOP hopefuls, several of them considerable long shots.
The dinner and weekend campaigning served as the ceremonial start of the 1996 race, and weekend polls put the stakes in perspective. They showed Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas is far and away the early favorite of New Hampshire Republicans, the very voters who dashed his White House hopes in 1988.
Dole, 71, seemed determined to turn questions about his age to his advantage, suggesting his World War II generation “knows what made America great in the first place. … I want to be your president for the right reason - because I can provide the leadership America needs now and into the next century.”
Dole said it is past time to grant Reagan’s wish and give the president the line-item veto, and he said his mandate as Senate leader and then as president would be “reining in government.”
Front-runner status doesn’t always mean much in quirky New Hampshire, especially a year away. Still, Dole’s rivals clearly were in a mood to counter his aggressive early organizing. Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, for example, announced he had won the endorsement of New Hampshire GOP Sen. Bob Smith.
And, Gramm sought to position himself as the candidate most in touch with New Hampshire’s anti-tax, small government traditions, noting that he helped write Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts and was a longtime backer of a balanced budget amendment.
“I believe families can do a better job than the government does spending your money,” Gramm told the dinner.
Along with Gramm and Dole, the most organized of the GOP prospects is former Tennessee Gov. Lamar Alexander, whose suggested it was time for the party to turn again, a la Reagan in 1980, to a former governor suspicious of Washington
“We are losing our optimism in this country and the way to get it back, number one, is to move the decision making out of Washington, D.C.,” he said.
But while Dole, Gramm and Alexander sought to focus on their perceived strengths, others in the field squared off in a debate those three would prefer to avoid because of its divisive history.
“I believe that if the abortion issue stays in the (GOP platform) we will be giving President Clinton his best and perhaps his only chance to be reelected,” said Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania. “I think it is very important to take abortion out of politics.”
Specter got support from former Labor Secretary Lynn Martin of Illinois, but scorn from three longshot conservatives in the field: commentator Patrick Buchanan, California Rep. Robert Dornan and Alan Keyes, a mid-level Reagan administration State Department official who has lost two Maryland Senate races.
“It is a baby, not a choice,” Dornan said during an afternoon forum on WMUR-TV.
“You cannot call right to life an irrelevancy,” said Patrick Buchanan, the conservative commentator who challenged President Bush in 1992. “A great party has to take a stand.”
Keyes said “your daughters do not have the right to do what is wrong. They do not have the right to steal breath from the mouth of the innocent. They do not have the right to steal life.”
Neither Gramm, Dole or Alexander mentioned abortion in their dinner remarks.
At the earlier WMUR forum, Gramm and Alexander, walked a delicate line on the divisive issue, as did Dole at his weekend events.
Alexander said he was personally opposed to abortion and had supported restrictions as governor. But he said there should be no federal role on the issue.
Gramm, too, said he opposed abortion but respected Republicans who supported abortion rights. Dole made similar remarks during his weekend stops.
Also speaking at the dinner was Indiana GOP Sen. Richard Lugar, who said his foreign policy expertise and service as Indianapolis mayor distinguished him from the others.