The site of Ripon Society's annual fund-raiser was incorrect in a Style story yesterday. It was held Tuesday night at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill. (Published 8/2/90)

For the past decade, the words "liberal" and "Republican" have been like oil and water, Mozart and Merle Haggard, Iraq and Iran -- you just didn't bring them together, and if you did, you were taking great risks.

That was not the theory of a collection of young moderates and liberals who hung around together in Cambridge, Mass., and decided in December of 1963 that what the Republican Party needed was more intellectual energy and a strong dose of liberal politics. They founded the Ripon Society, named after the town in Wisconsin where, according to one version of history, the Republican Party was founded in 1854. Their heroes were people like Nelson Rockefeller, John Lindsay, Jacob Javits and William Scranton.

Seen from one point of view, life has never been anything but dismal for Ripon Republicans. Seven months after the society was founded, the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater, just the man Ripon did not want as the party's presidential nominee. Then came Richard Nixon, Watergate and Ronald Reagan. If those Cambridge Republicans had tried to imagine the most nightmarish scenario for their cause, they could hardly have done better than what reality actually handed them.

The first miracle is that Ripon survived. And Ripon members who gathered for their annual fund-raiser at the Washington Hilton last night think a second miracle is in the process of happening. For the first time in years, they can make a case that the Republican Party is moving, at least a little, in their direction.

At a minimum, there's this: Ripon leaders can usually get their phone calls to the White House returned these days. President Bush himself sent a warm note that was read at last night's dinner. Ripon members, he said, "have not only worked to expand the ranks of the Republican Party but also enlivened numerous public policy debates at the state and national level."

Two top members of the administration, William Reilly, head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and C. Boyden Gray, the White House counsel, showed up to accept awards.

Gray spoke of Ripon with lawyerlike caution, but he praised the organization for moving in the direction of the Republican mainstream -- which is music these days to Ripon ears.

"My impression is that they have become more incentive-oriented," Gray said.

The Bush-Ripon friendship goes back a long way. Ripon made what turned out to be a prescient choice when it selected Bush as one of a relatively small number of House Republicans that the society endorsed for reelection in 1968. According to Josiah Lee Auspitz, who has been a member of Ripon since 1965, Ripon offered to endorse Bush for the Senate against Lloyd Bentsen in 1970, but Bush turned them down. In a race in which Bentsen was attacking Bush from the right, Bush didn't much want an endorsement from a bunch of liberals, most of whom hailed from Cambridge or New York City.

Ripon-style Republicans are not nearly so alienated from mainstream conservatives these days. Rep. Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), not anyone's idea of a liberal Republican (though he once supported Nelson Rockefeller), was elected House whip last year with the support of some Ripon sympathizers. Gingrich himself gave a long interview to the Ripon Forum last year. Once upon a time, Gingrich appearing in the Ripon Forum would have been like Fidel Castro making a guest appearance on Radio Marti.

If you want to know how important Ripon-type Republicans are, William P. McKenzie, Ripon's executive director, will tell you that many of the Republican Party's best hopes in this fall's Senate elections are moderates or liberals, like Reps. Claudine Schneider in Rhode Island, Pat Saiki in Hawaii, Lynn Martin in Illinois and Tom Tauke in Iowa. Martin and Schneider were at last night's dinner; Tauke is on Ripon's advisory board.

So who's changed in this deal, Ripon or the Republicans?

The answer is both -- though even the most optimistic Ripon members don't pretend that they are about to capture the Republican Party for the principles of Wendell Willkie or, for that matter, Mark Hatfield.

"Ripon is clearly a minority voice in the party -- there's no question about that," said Rep. William Clinger (R-Pa.), the chairman of Ripon's advisory board. When the House Republican caucus will overwhelmingly reject the possibility of a tax increase, even when proposed by a Republican president, you know that the Republican center of gravity is rather to the right of Ripon.

And while Ripon is now on solid footing after years of sickly finances, its $250,000 annual budget makes it a mom-and-pop operation compared with some of Washington's conservative giants, like the Heritage Foundation. "If you contrast Ripon with Heritage et al.," said Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa), a former Ripon chairman, "there's a little different philosophical orientation and a quantum difference in funding."

Yet Ripon has always managed to have an influence beyond its numbers or budgets. To the surprise of many, Richard Nixon took a sympathetic view of many of Ripon's proposals -- for revenue sharing and the volunteer Army, for example -- when he took office and even hired some Ripon members.

For Auspitz, who is now secretary of the Sabre Foundation, Watergate was even more devastating to the cause of Ripon Republicanism than the rise of Ronald Reagan was. Watergate drove some Ripon Republicans out of politics entirely. And after Watergate, many of the upper-middle-class reformers who had provided a base for liberal Republicanism in the past decided they were more comfortable in the Democratic Party. "These people were getting regularly beaten in the Republican Party by the Goldwater wing," said Auspitz, "and they were winning in the Democratic Party."

When John Anderson bolted the Republican Party to run for president as an independent in 1980, many of the remaining Ripon-types, including McKenzie, went with him. But McKenzie, for one, returned, and he and Leach kept Ripon together during the Reagan years as a faithful liberal (or, as Ripon preferred in those years, "moderate") remnant.

"The society's greatest achievement, really, was keeping a point of view alive," McKenzie said. There is an irony in the fact that Ronald Reagan's landslide actually helped liberal Republicans in at least one respect: His 1980 victory helped give Republicans control of the Senate, and that conferred real power on such liberals as Hatfield and Robert Packwood of Oregon and John Chafee of Rhode Island.

The Bush years, Ripon's members insist, will be much better, partly because the issues are changing. The revival of the political battle over abortion, for example, has given Ripon, whose members generally favor abortion rights, a new issue to use in rallying upper-middle-class Republicans.

Ripon has also accommodated the party's conservative mood. McKenzie is horrified at the suggestion that Ripon Republicans are "big spenders" of the Nelson Rockefeller school. "You look at tonight," McKenzie said. "You have Bill Gradison {R-Ohio} and Boyden Gray, who are not John Lindsay."

Auspitz sees conservatives as more open. "They actually had the government and that pretty much winnowed out from the leadership of the conservative movement the super-haters," he said. "So dealing with the conservatives is a lot more pleasant than it used to be."

Conservatives are also showing a new interest in old Ripon causes, like fighting poverty. These days, the Heritage Foundation is putting out anti-poverty proposals, like the earned income tax credit, that bear a remarkable similarity to some of the things Ripon has been selling for years.

Burton Yale Pines, a vice president at Heritage, rather doubts that Ripon is the wave of the future, but he will concede it at least some conservative respectability. "If they were the left wing of the party before, they are the left wing of the party now," he said. But since the Republicans have moved right, "that means they're less left-wing." From Heritage, that's a compliment.