A conservative gathering called to hear a parade of prospective Republican presidential candidates was nearly overshadowed yesterday by a name-calling dispute over contradictory polls, one claiming that the right wing supports Rep. Jack Kemp (D-N.Y.), the other, Vice President Bush.
Such prominent Republicans as Senate Majority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.), former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Christian Broadcast Network President Marion G. (Pat) Robertson, Kemp and Bush told 1,000 conservative activists of their commitment to fight communism, deficits and high taxes.
In back rooms, however, many of their supporters engaged in a strident exchange of charges over polls.
A key Dole supporter, David Keene, chairman of the Conservative Political Action Congress (CPAC), accused Kemp's supporters of sabotaging a poll "in a Watergate-type tactic from the kind of people who learned to operate in that era."
Keene charged that Roger Stone, a Kemp adviser, "orchestrated" a ballotbox-stuffing operation using the pro-Kemp, College Republicans organization.
"Roger Stone learned his politics at the knees of Charles Chuck Colson," Keene said, in a reference to one of former president Richard M. Nixon's assistants who was a central figure in the Watergate scandal.
Stone dismissed Keane's comments as "preposterous," while David Minor, head of the College Republicans, called them "nonsense."
The intensity of the battle, however, reflects the strong importance all the candidates are placing on conservative support, even though the GOP nominating convention is 2 1/2 years away.
All the major prospective presidential candidates except former Senate majority leader Howard H. Baker (R-Tenn.) are scheduled to appear at the CPAC conference, which is considered the grandfather of conservative gatherings.
But the speakers started with Robertson, who touched on nearly every right-wing issue from abortion to Angola.
The host of the Christian Network's "700 Club" placed the antiabortion argument in an economic context, saying that the expected "killing" of 40 million "unborn children" will deprive the nation's work force of people who, by the end of the century, would have contributed $1.3 trillion to the economy and paid $330 billion in taxes. And he said that population lost to abortion reduces the number of people available to contribute to the Social Security trust fund.
The most enthusiastic reception of the day was given to Kemp, who was welcomed by cheering members of the College Republicans carrying "Kemp '88" signs and wearing "Not Bush" buttons.
Kemp, whom aides contend is the legitimate heir to the Reagan conservative movement, said, "Our ideas are on the march, and nothing can stop them."
Like Robertson, Kemp's speech ran the gamut of issues from aid to Jonas Savimbi, leader of the anticommunist insurgency in Angola, to restoring the gold standard and continuing tax cuts.
And like Kemp, Bush sought to wrap himself in President Reagan's mantle, declaring: "We started the production line on the B1 bomber . With a lot of hard political work, we saved the MX missile. We stood firm with our European allies, proceeding with the installation of cruise and Pershing II missiles."
The underlying tension between the candidates performing in the conservative "cattle show" was reflected, however, in Dole's afternoon appearance.
In what appeared to be a slap at Kemp, Dole said: "Some people deliver speeches; some deliver votes. It's the votes that count."
As Dole left the gathering, he also took a swipe at Bush. Acknowledging that his reception at the CPAC reception had been mixed, Dole said with a smile: "If you agreed with everything they want, then you wouldn't be a candidate. You'd be in George Will's column."
Earlier this week, Will had published a column highly critical of Bush's attempt to gain favor among a wide variety of conservative groups and calling Bush a "lap dog."
Dole released the results of one of the controversial polls and focused on selective sections of the survey that gave him higher "positive" ratings than Kemp, although both Bush and Kemp placed ahead of him.
The poll, by Arthur Finkelstein of Mount Kisco, N.Y., said that the conservatives, when asked their first choice for president, chose Bush by 36 percent, Kemp by 17 percent and Dole by 8 percent.
The Finkelstein poll was the original source of the dispute among Dole, Kemp and Bush backers. As announced, the survey was supposed to be a sampling of members of the 55 organizations that each pay $1,500 to cosponsor CPAC.
Two pro-Kemp groups, the College Republicans and the Fund for a Conservative Majority, complained, however, that Finkelstein had failed to include their members.
Keane denied the charges. He said that in an attempt to accommodate Kemp's supporters, who won last year in a presidential poll of those attending the 1985 CPAC session, he agreed to have a straw poll this year of those attending the conference, in addition to the Finkelstein poll.
This second poll, which continued through yesterday, led to Keane's charge that Stone had organized the College Republicans to bring everyone possible to the meeting here to enhance Kemp's chances. Minor, head of the College Republicans, said there was no such plan and that so many of the group attended because they plan to hold their national meeting here on Sunday.
In the meantime, the College Republicans took a poll of the conference's attendants. Kemp won decisively with 55 percent of the vote, compared to 12 percent for Bush, 8 percent each for Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), Kirkpatrick and Robertson, and 1 percent for Dole.