Republican Hopefuls Decry Moral Decay
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 7, 1999; Page A6
MANCHESTER, N.H., Feb. 6—On the 88th birthday of former president Ronald Reagan, three potential Republican presidential candidates tonight outlined their visions of America as one of stark contrast: A wealthy strong nation and the world's only superpower, on one hand. A spiritually deprived nation, bordering on the verge of moral bankruptcy, on the other.
All three, businessman Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes, former Reagan administration official Alan Keyes and conservative activist Gary Bauer, presented themselves to the 1,200-plus cheering Christian Coalition members as the answer to years of what they called a lack of moral leadership in the Clinton White House.
Each 10-minute speech evoked the Reagan legacy. But the presidential hopefuls also underscored the extent to which some of the Republican Party's key issues -- crime, taxes and jobs -- have been co-opted by the flourishing economy. In several polls in the last years, voters, and particularly Republican voters, have said that the moral decline of the country was among the most serious problems facing America.
"We are at a crossroads," Keyes said to the crowd gathered at the banquet center in the Manchester Holiday Inn tonight. "And it looks as if we have chosen the wrong fork in the road." He went on to complain that too many Americans appeared willing to condone what he said were lies and obfuscation from the White House.
Bauer told the crowd that while a nation could judge its success on its wealth and ability to defend itself, "you can also measure a nation by how big its virtue deficit is."
And Forbes, who angered social conservatives in his failed bid for the party's nomination in 1996 by not talking about abortion and other issues, concentrated on such issues tonight.
All three potential candidates are hoping to develop momentum in the state, which will hold the nation's first presidential primary in just over a year.
Former vice president Dan Quayle did not attend but in taped remarks declared: "We need to acknowledge the role of faith in our national life."
Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson warned the group that the nation was facing a "crisis of conscience" and suffering the effects of "moral relativism" under President Clinton.
A Christian Coalition official said eight or nine of the potential candidates for 2000 had been invited to the event, billed as "New Hampshire's First in the Nation Primary Gala Celebration." Several said they had scheduling conflicts. Texas Gov. George W. Bush routinely has turned down invitations to speak at out-of-state functions. Another potential candidate, New Hampshire's own Sen. Robert C. Smith, had a prior commitment in Washington -- the impeachment trial of Clinton. Former Red Cross president Elizabeth Hanford Dole did not attend but was scheduled to attend a business group dinner on Monday.
Christian Coalition leader Randy Tate told the crowd that "social conservatives are the largest and most important swing vote in America today."
But state GOP Chairman Steve Duprey, who chatted with reporters in the lounge outside the event, played down the significance of the gathering, noting that Christian conservatives are not nearly as significant a force in New Hampshire as they are in Iowa, which traditionally has held the nation's first presidential caucuses just before New Hampshire's primary.
"I would say it is one of 10 or 15 constituency groups" in the state GOP, he said. "Nevertheless, when you have a field of nine or 10 candidates and one of the most wide-open primaries we've ever had, it behooves every candidate to reach out to every group." Duprey said he expects as many as nine candidates to attend the state party's first-in-the-nation gala on May 2.
In a news conference at the hotel earlier in the day, Robertson said he was pleased with the potential field of Republican candidates and thought almost any of them could represent the party well in 2000. He made it clear that he would not -- at least for now -- throw his weight behind any individual candidate, as he did with Robert J. Dole in 1996. He did acknowledge, without elaborating, that he "would be more satisfied with some than others."
Robertson said he regretted that Sen. John D. Ashcroft of Missouri had decided not to run for the presidential nomination. Ashcroft, he noted, would have been the favorite of many Christian Coalition members.
He also defended a statement he made last month that the Senate should hurry and conclude the impeachment trial. He said it was obvious Democrats would not vote to convict, creating essentially a "hung jury. . . . It seemed to me a forgone conclusion. When you don't have the votes, what do you do?"
Contrary to what some Republicans have been saying in recent weeks, Robertson said he had no problem with Bush's oft-repeated mantra of "compassionate conservatism." In recent weeks, some of the potential GOP candidates -- most notably former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander and Quayle -- have criticized Bush's use of the phrase, which they said was redundant.
But Robertson, who unsuccessfully sought his party's presidential nomination in 1988, said the GOP should present a compassionate face in order to appeal to a broader spectrum of people. "I agree with it," he said of the term. "I believe the Republican Party must show a compassionate side."
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