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Ala. Republicans Uneasy About Attacks

By Terry M. Neal
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 10, 1998; Page A09

GADSDEN, Ala. – Lately, when Robert Brown has received campaign contribution appeals from Republican political committees, he has scrawled "no confidence" or "no leadership" across the forms and returned them without a check.

This, he said, is his way of protesting the timid approach GOP leaders have been taking of late on core Republican social and economic issues. It is people such as Brown, some Republican pollsters and strategists say, who House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) must energize with his increasingly outspoken criticism of President Clinton and congressional Democrats.

But even a hard-core, straight-ticket Republican voter like Brown, a 69-year-old retired geologist from Guntersville, has reservations about Gingrich's approach.

"I'd like to see Newt speak out, but he's got a tendency to rub people the wrong way," said Brown, who pulled himself away from Rush Limbaugh's noon broadcast to chat. "He's the Speaker of the House, so I guess he should say something or have one of his henchmen do it. But I'd really just rather watch the Democrats hang themselves with their own noose."

In this swath of relatively moderate northern Alabama, Brown's point of view is not uncommon. None of the more than 15 Republicans interviewed at random over the last few days expressed elation at Gingrich's recent efforts to spotlight alleged crimes and coverups by the Clinton administration and the Democratic Party.

Indeed, some characterized it as a major turnoff that could diminish the GOP's stature before the midterm elections in November. And some complained that Gingrich's blunt declaration that crimes had been committed had undermined the ability of Republicans in Congress to investigate charges against Clinton and the Democrats.

With six months to go before the election, the effect of all of this remains to be seen. Certainly, Gingrich's efforts have pleased many hard-core Republicans across the country, and one need only listen to Limbaugh's show for proof. But the snapshot in Alabama's 4th Congressional District gives at least some indication that efforts by Republicans, and particularly Gingrich, to escalate their rhetoric could produce mixed results.

This year, Washington political observers believe the 4th District, represented by first-termer Robert A. Aderholt (R), will feature one of the more competitive races in the South. Either of two Democrats, including Bob Wilson Jr., who lost the close race to Aderholt in 1996 with 48 percent of the vote, or Don Bevill, the son of Tom Bevill, who represented the district for three decades, could be formidable opponents. The Democrats face off in a primary June 2.

None of the voters interviewed from either party confessed to having given the election much thought at this point. And given the changing state of play of independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr's investigations, it is impossible to predict what the political environment will be in November. But many Democrats in Washington believe that Gingrich's outspokenness could actually help them.

Republicans "are kind of between a rock and a hard place," said Olivia Morgan, spokeswoman for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. "On one hand, they risk alienating the base that they need to turn out by ignoring it, and on the other hand, they risk turning off swing voters who will vote for the other guy if they talk about it too much."

In Rainbow City, a suburb south of Gadsden, 42-year-old dentist Rex Wilson, a Republican, reflected that conundrum, saying that he thinks Gingrich "is correct in the things he's saying, but I don't know how well thought out it is. I think he could have at least waited until Ken Starr turned in his report [to Congress] before he started blasting away."

William G. Peppenhorst, a 56-year-old utility company manager from Gadsden and a Republican, said the cloud around Clinton "detracted from the presidency" and he believes "where there's a lot of smoke, there's fire." But he was uneasy with Gingrich's recent comments: "I have mixed emotions. I don't know if the Republicans can do that. If they have to use that [as an election issue], we're in trouble."

Ann Harper, a 62-year-old retiree from Gadsden, said she is a Republican "because I'm a Christian. I'm against abortion and homosexuality." She said she believes Republicans need to "draw a line in the sand." But she doubts Gingrich can do it without turning many people off. "I'm just not comfortable with that," she said, referring to the speaker's recent statements.

Gadsden, with a population of about 43,000, is the largest town in a sprawling, rural congressional district that stretches from one end of Alabama to the other in the northern third of the state. A labor town between Huntsville and Birmingham, Gadsden for years voted Democratic.

But Republicans have become more prevalent in recent years around Gadsden, mirroring the changing political landscape of the rest of the 14-county district. In 1996, Clinton won Etowah County, where Gadsden is located, with 48 percent of the vote. But he lost the district, with 43 percent of the vote. Aderholt won his race with slightly more than 50 percent of the vote, giving Democrats hope this year that his support is soft enough to make him vulnerable.

In Washington, some Republicans acknowledge the riskiness of Gingrich's strategy. At a breakfast with reporters last week, GOP pollster Linda DiVall said Gingrich's efforts to soften his image had begun to pay off in rising poll ratings. DiVall said she believes Gingrich grew frustrated with the behavior of Clinton and the Democrats. Even so, she said, his outspokenness could come with "personal risks."

Standing outside his stately brick home in a neighborhood called Andrew Jackson Heights, Brown said that even though he has misgivings about the effectiveness of Gingrich in attack mode, he understands the attempt to reach out to voters like him.

"I guess I kind of welcome it," Brown said. "He just has to guard what he says."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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