New Right conservatives, stung at the polls last fall, are beginning to switch tactics as they eye the 1984 elections.
After relying heavily on "hit lists" and negative advertising against liberal candidates and causes in the past, strategists say their groups are going to emphasize positive ads, grass-roots organizing and an effort to recast New Right conservatives as "New Populists."
One of the most aggressive of the New Right groups, the National Conservative Political Action Committee (NCPAC), for example, has built its reputation on tough, negative advertising against liberal politicians. But recently it announced plans to "accentuate the positive" in 1984 with a $5 million "American Heroes for Reagan" campaign aimed at reelecting the president.
NCPAC Chairman John T. (Terry) Dolan said his group would target liberal candidates in 1984, "but the priority will be on the presidential campaign." Plans include a 30-minute television documentary, rallies and recruiting 1 million volunteers.
The Moral Majority, which has tripled its membership in the past year, recently formed a political action committee to mount "positive" independent expenditure campaigns in 1984 congressional races. It is also discouraging allies' efforts to censor books in local libraries. Instead, it will seek to get more religious books on the shelves.
"I think a positive campaign will work. We need to stay away from inflammatory rhetoric, like calling people who support legalized abortion 'murderers and baby killers,' " said Moral Majority Vice President Cal Thomas. "Negative campaigns contribute to a lack of discourse and stereotyping of issues. That's hurt us in the past."
Even more telling is a subtle effort by conservatives to shed the New Right label by recasting themselves as "New Populists."
Richard A. Viguerie, a direct-mail expert and publisher of Conservative Digest magazine, devoted an entire recent edition of the magazine to "The New Populist Revolt," defining it as a political uprising against big banks, big labor, big government and media elitists.
"This is the most significant development among conservatives since the New Right," Viguerie said. "The New Right agenda and issues took us a long way, but we have to add something to the mix."
Rep. Jack Kemp (R-N.Y.) preached the populist theme, which he has espoused for years, last month at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference.
"Populism is basically the idea that you can trust people to make the right decisions about their own lives and about the country," Kemp said. But he and Viguerie appear to be at odds over an agenda.
Kemp talked about the gold standard, a constitutional amendment providing for national referendums, tax indexing and fair trade as issues to rally around. "Only a second-rate politician would seize on protectionism as a popular issue," he said.
Viguerie talks about illegal aliens, drunk driving, crime and "countries that flood America with goods but keep our products out" as New Populist issues.
Viguerie was one of the frustrated young conservatives who formed the New Right during the 1970s to bring traditional economic conservatives into a political movement with a group concerned about such "social issues" as abortion, prayer in public school, pornography and busing.
Financed with millions of dollars raised through inflammatory direct-mail appeals, New Right groups helped defeat well-known liberal senators in 1978 and 1980 with negative campaigns. But after some disappointing results in November, most of the groups went back to the drawing boards.
"I suspect that each individual operation has conducted its own internal audit," said Paul Weyrich, a leading New Right strategist and director of the Committee for Survival of a Free Congress. Some, ranging from the Committee for the Survival of a Free Congress to the National Pro-Life Political Action Committee, have decided to focus on grass-roots organizing.
Bill Billings of the National Christian Action Coalition, for example, is planning 20 seminars around the country this year to train 1,000 ministers and "Christian school administrators" in political techniques.
"We relied too much on slick media packing last fall," said Peter Gemma, executive of the National Pro-Life PAC. "Now I realize I've got to go out and organize more bodies."