By Thomas B. Edsall
At a meeting of more than 1,600 southern Republicans, prospective GOP presidential and vice presidential candidates, congressional leaders and governors assaulted Clinton with a combination of caustic humor and statements of high morality over the question of whether the president had sex with former White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky and then asked her to lie about it.
Former vice president Dan Quayle called for enactment of a new crime program: "Three interns and you're out."
Sen. Fred D. Thompson (R-Tenn.) noted that while he is the chairman of the Senate Government Affairs Committee, "I'm not in charge of all government affairs."
Most of the anti-Clinton comments were not, however, voiced to get a laugh.
Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R), who is trying to win approval as a prospective vice presidential nominee, declared that Clinton has publicly advocated personal responsibility "but seems incapable of taking responsibility for his own actions."
Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. (R-Okla.), who has also been mentioned as a potential vice presidential running mate, with pamphlets and stick-on buttons distributed here promoting a ticket led by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), asked: "Friends, what has happened to us when a high school football or basketball coach has to live to a higher standard than the president of the United States?"
Former Tennessee governor and past presidential aspirant Lamar Alexander said, "What is happening today in the Oval Office is a national embarrassment."
Until now, Republican strategy has called for GOP leaders to stand aside and let the independent counsel's investigation into Lewinsky's tape-recorded allegations play out. GOP reluctance to enter the fray has been reinforced by poll results showing Clinton's job approval shooting up into the 70 percent-plus favorability range.
Thompson said he generally supports a Republican strategy of noninvolvement in the Clinton-Lewinsky controversy, but "if it becomes apparent that this White House is intent on investigating, digging up dirt and dragging through the mire anyone who criticizes what they are doing, or if this White House is intent on coming up with claims of phony executive privilege as a means of keeping the facts from the American people, it's going to be time for us to get off the sidelines."
While House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) pointedly avoided discussing the allegations, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) cautiously mentioned it, saying, "If the facts come out as to be alleged, I consider that to be very serious and I am going to count on the American people demanding that action must be taken."
Quayle told reporters that Clinton's high poll ratings are on the verge of falling sharply -- he predicted by 20 points or more -- and when the numbers drop, "there may be no bottom."
"Quayle 2000" and "Quayle-Bush" signs carried by more than two dozen young supporters of the former vice president suggested that one of Quayle's major competitors for the 2000 nomination, Texas Gov. George W. Bush, should be the vice presidential nominee, just as Quayle was vice president during the presidency of Bush's father. The Texas governor did not attend this weekend's conference.
On Sunday, conference officials are scheduled to release the results of a straw poll of attendees showing their first and second choices for the GOP presidential nominee in 2000.
During the first two days of the meeting, delegates voiced the most enthusiasm for speeches by Quayle, publisher and 1996 candidate Malcolm S. "Steve" Forbes and perennial candidate Alan Keyes. Alexander was somewhat less well received, and reaction to former Housing and Urban Development secretary Jack Kemp, the vice presidential nominee in '96, was even more subdued.
The Republicans chose unusual venues for a political party that has achieved many of its gains, especially here in the South, from the growing loyalty of conservative Christian evangelical and born-again voters. The 15th biennial Southern Republican Leadership Conference was held in the Grand Casino Biloxi Hotel, one of many gambling resorts that dot Mississippi's coastline on the Gulf of Mexico. And, on Friday night, leaders of the party that has been seeking to gain support among black voters held a catered reception at Beauvoir, the home of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate states.
Sen. John D. Ashcroft (R-Mo.), who has stressed moral and cultural issues in his presidential bid, took the question of gambling head on. "We meet this afternoon in a place surrounded by money changers and risk takers. I think it's wrong. Our party should not sell its soul to the gambling lobby of this country. . . . The truth is that gambling is a cancer on the soul of our nation."
Ashcroft sought to expand his message beyond social issues to encompass conservative economic themes. Warning that Republican reluctance to pass a major tax cut this year threatens to turn "the party of Ronald Reagan [into] the debt collector for the nanny state," Ashcroft said Congress should eliminate the marriage penalty in the income tax, for a $29 billion cut this year, and allow taxpayers to deduct payments made into the Social Security system, for another $29 billion reduction.
Forbes attacked the Clinton administration's characterization of the stand-off with Iraq, charging that the administration portrayal of the situation as a "diplomatic solution" is wrong, "it's only a deadly intermission." Quayle said the goal of a confrontation with Iraq should not be to "annoy Saddam, not to inconvenience Saddam, but to remove Saddam Hussein."
While anti-Clinton comments were enthusiastically received, some of the strongest response was to attacks on the role of the United Nations and on U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan.
"The president has some explaining to do. Why has he turned over our foreign policy to the U.N. secretary general, who thinks Saddam is a nice guy?" said Thompson to strong applause. The cheers were even louder when he declared "U.S. foreign policy ought not be subcontracted to Kofi Annan or written at the United Nations. And as long as I have a voice, America will not sacrifice another ounce of her sovereignty to the architects of and acolytes of a one-world government."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company