AMONG POLITICAL professionals old enough to recall that earlier "emerging Republican majority," which failed to materialize, Ray C. Bliss -- who died Thursday at 73 -- enjoyed a deservedly fine reputation as a GOP organizer and stalwart. Mr. Bliss became national chairman of a badly dmoralized Republican Party after the Barry Goldwater presidential debacle of 1964, managed to subordinate its deep ideological and sectional divisions and presided over the most remarkable -- and rapid -- political recovery in modern history. In large measure because of that skillful reconstruction, Richard Nixon won the presidency in 1968 and Republicans increased substantially their share of officeholders at every level of government. For his efforts, President Nixon rewarded Mr. Bliss -- essentially a tactician unencumbered by an excess of admiration for the new president -- by replacing him in the chairmanship with a loyalist.
Ray Bliss was the last of a powerful breed of midwestern Republican political managers who lost their national influence within the party only in the past generation. The tradition began with founders such as David Davis of Illionis -- who helped to engineer the 1860 nomination for previously unsuccessful senatorial candidate named Lincoln -- and reached its apex in the career of Ohio industralialist Mark Hanna, William McKinley's chief campaign strategist.
Even in this century, the Midwest remained the center of Republican political gravity from the dubious triumph of Warren Harding's "Ohio Gang" in 1920 to the more respectable -- if unsuccessful -- presidential bids of Mr. Bliss" major political patron, Robert A. Taft. Unsurprisingly, as the "new Republicans" of the southern and western states grew in numbers and influence within the party, national figures (and their managers) have come mainly from those areas. Thus it was a national chairman from Tennessee, Bill Brock, who modeled himself on Ray Bliss's earlier role as a mediating "technician," is directing the resurgence of Republicianism after its 1976 whomping. Mr. Brock's replacement -- Richard Richards of Utah -- continues to stress organizational skills and to de-emphasize divisive doctrinal fights within the GOP -- all in the Bliss tradition.
During his years as national chairman, Ray Bliss wrote often and urgently about the party's need to increase its appeal in the cities and, especially, among blacks, blue-collar workers and other voting groups previously neglected by the party. He welcomed ideological diversity, and nothing irritated him more than efforts by the pursists or single-interest zealots to purge the GOP of those who dissented on some specific question of policy. Now that Republicans again have begun their long march toward becoming the new majority paty, the "moderate Republicanism" Ray Bliss practiced as well as preaced so effectively affords valuable lessons for them.