GOP Chairman Reelected Amid Impeachment Worry

By Thomas B. Edsall
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 23, 1999; Page A14

Republicans yesterday reelected Jim Nicholson to a second term as party chairman amid growing anxiety among state leaders that the impeachment of President Clinton is threatening to damage the GOP's prospects in 2000.

Nicholson, a Republican National Committee member from Colorado, easily fended off a challenge from Florida state party Chairman Tom Slade, 127 to 36, despite complaints about GOP setbacks in the 1998 elections. Slade and Nicholson said after the vote that the proceedings against Clinton are hurting their party.

"In standing up for American values, Republicans have sustained political damage, at least in the short term," Nicholson said in a speech to the RNC. But Nicholson argued that "character is doing what's right even when everybody is looking at the polls. We cannot be a political party that decides what it believes based on the polls."

Nicholson tried to bring the focus beyond impeachment to the 2000 presidential campaign and the most likely Democratic nominee -- Vice President Gore, whom he gave special attention in his speech, calling him the "chief defender and heir-apparent as leader of the tax-and-spend wing of the Democratic Party."

Slade told reporters: "If we get on out of here pretty quick, then I don't think it's going to impact 2000. . . . [It's] a negative now. I think . . . the American people are waiting for this issue to get over with."

On the same subject, Thomas D. Rath, a committeeman from New Hampshire, said: "Right now, it's an enormous distraction. . . . There are some things Republicans in Congress want to talk about that we just can't get to because we are so caught up in this." Rath said he agrees with those who say "we know how this is going to come out, why don't we just get to that vote and move on."

Yet, despite these concerns, the majority of RNC members appeared to support the continuation of the Senate trial. New Jersey committeeman David Norcross said: "I would like them to finish as soon as they can, but I don't want them to stop and put it under the rug. . . . They have a moral responsibility to make the American people focus on this as a real problem."

As RNC members publicly and privately debated impeachment, another issue being discussed here was Nicholson's request that South Carolina committeeman Buddy Witherspoon resign from the Council of Conservative Citizens. The council has promoted controversial views warning that integration, immigration and intermarriage threaten the viability of the "white" race.

Yesterday, Witherspoon reiterated his intention to put off the issue. "I'll make a decision at the proper time," he said.

Most committee members were more critical of the council, and southerners were clearly uncomfortable with the issue.

"That organization seems to have a controversial, negative reputation around the country," said Henry McMaster, South Carolina party chairman. "It's not an organization that Republicans in South Carolina affiliate with."

Mike Retzer, Mississippi GOP chairman, said, "It's a personal decision," but added, "I personally am not interested in associating myself with them; I would recommend the same course to politicians in my state."

Slade was one of the few members to defend Witherspoon's right to be a member of any organization he chooses. "This happens to be America, and the privilege of membership to me is a little like free speech."

Rath of New Hampshire contended the controversy over the council and disclosures that Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and House Judiciary Committee member Robert L. Barr Jr. (R-Ga.) had addressed national meetings of the council have hurt the GOP's ability to reach out to moderate and independent voters. The publicity has "reinforced the stereotype" of the Republican Party as dominated by deeply conservative southern interests, he said.

Another northeasterner, Massachusetts committeeman Ron Kaufman, said Witherspoon's membership in the council creates a "perceptual problem, and it's bigger than any one of us. I think Jim [Nicholson] did the right thing, just like [former RNC chair] Lee Atwater repudiated David Duke."

The RNC rejected a proposal that the party not accept contributions from gambling interests and accepted a recommendation, made by its site selection committee last year, to hold its 2000 presidential convention in Philadelphia.

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