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Republicans Agree to Refocus Efforts and Agenda

By Ceci Connolly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 19, 1997; Page A09

CLEVELAND, July 18—On a day they hoped to turn the spotlight onto the Democratic fund-raising controversy, Republican officials were forced instead to revive their own dejected troops left stunned by reports of chaos in the House.

"I'm one of those Republicans who is a little frustrated right now because we seem to be reading more stories about palace intrigue than we are talking about a national agenda," said Michigan Gov. John Engler. "It's time to stop blaming and start acting. The Republican Party must start acting like the majority party that we are."

Gathered for what was expected to be three days of routine meetings and socializing, members of the Republican National Committee have spent much of their summer confab griping about their leaders in Washington and the party's lack of an agenda. News that one of House Speaker Newt Gingrich's top lieutenants had abruptly resigned only increased the anxiety among the men and women charged with keeping the party's grass-roots apparatus running.

"The inside-the-Beltway leaders need to understand we have goals to accomplish and they need to be cooperating better," said New Jersey committeeman David Norcross. "They should not be engaged with each other in Beltway ego fights."

Expressing the widespread sense that Democrats are winning the public relations war on budget and tax matters, RNC co-chair Pat Harrison declared: "That's our issue and we need to take it back."

Chastising fellow Republicans for "engaging in self-defeating behavior and replaying last year's season," Engler suggested a high-level strategy summit. "What our party needs is a simple national agenda so every American knows what we stand for."

And just to make clear where he stands on the turmoil in the House ranks, Engler added: "And I mean the elected leadership who are serving today and not the would-be leaders who think it might be time for a change. . . . Let's go to work with the team we elected."

RNC members apparently agreed and passed a resolution urging the "Republican House leadership, the Republican Senate leadership and the Republican governors, in a small group, to meet for a weekend and turn off their beepers and focus our great party."

Norcross said the unusual vote was a clear sign of frustration in the ranks. "Criticism of what was going on in the House is exactly what we meant, and it is richly deserved."

Although the RNC is in far better financial shape than its Democratic counterpart, officials acknowledged they are falling short of fund-raising projections. The problem for Republicans is twofold: less-than-spectacular giving among small donors and higher-than-expected expenses for responding to campaign finance investigators.

"The effort has been a real drain on the RNC financially and has to some extent disrupted the day-to-day activities of every division," said RNC counsel Michael Grebe.

Revenue for the year is about $1.3 million less than budget projections, and the RNC still faces a debt of about $4 million, down from $9.75 million after the election.

Mel Sembler, chief of party fund-raising, said direct-mail contributions and gifts from small donors are below expectations largely because a skeptical public is awaiting action in Congress. "Our stockholders want to see results," he said. To help close the gap, Sembler is staging eight fancy dinners around the country at which he hopes Gingrich (Ga.), Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (Miss.) and other GOP leaders will explain what they are up to in Washington.

A GOP task force on campaign finance endorsed much of the current system, essentially affirming that the marketplace is the best regulator of political money. The panel recommended legislation that would prohibit unions from forcing members to give to campaigns.

Newly installed party chairman Jim Nicholson said Democrats were trying inaccurately to "spin" the Senate hearings into a debate on campaign finance laws, and he criticized Clinton for seeming to ignore the probe.

"This investigation is not in any way about reforming campaign finance laws. It has become nothing less than about our nation's security," Nicholson said. "Because of revelations in this week's hearings, the primary focus of these investigations must be whether the People's Republic of China attempted to influence and corrupt our election campaigns here in America."

But it was Ohio Gov. George V. Voinovich who issued the harshest attack against Clinton. "You don't run the White House as a place where you run the sheep through and shear them as much as you possibly can."

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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